Around 160,000 extra Australians will be able to access subsidised COVID antiviral treatments from Saturday as virus cases rise and the federal government launches a new ad campaign encouraging booster doses.
Australians in their 60s with one severe illness risk factor will join the eligibility list for Pfizer’s oral antiviral, Paxlovid, from this weekend, when a vaccination drive is also rolled out on television, social media and billboards.
Health Minister Mark Butler said aged care cases had risen by about 65 per cent, antiviral prescriptions had risen by about 40 per cent, and while there were fewer hospitalisations from COVID than in the peak of the summer wave, there had been a slow and small uptick over the last five weeks.
“All of which goes to reinforce the message that this is not over,” he said. “There will be future waves of COVID across the course of this year, and it is important to continue to reinforce those standard messages about remaining COVID-safe.”
Less than half of the eligible population (45.2 per cent) has had their fourth COVID dose going into winter although that figure is much higher – 75 per cent or more – for groups over 70-years-old.
Butler said the government’s campaign would emphasise new advice issued in January that shifted booster eligibility away from how many doses a person had, to how many months it had been since their last dose or infection.
All adult Australians who have not had a COVID-19 infection or vaccination in the last six months can get an extra booster, regardless of how many vaccine doses they have previously received.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said expanded eligibility for antiviral treatments – which prevent severe disease, hospitalisation and death – had been recommended by the independent pharmaceutical benefits advisory committee based on latest evidence and there was “plenty of supply”.
The cost for a course of treatment for people who are not eligible for the subsidy remains close to $1000 on the private market, he said.
“But I think the message to Australians is the people that really need it, they are now eligible for that highly subsidised PBS rate, and they’re the ones that should be making those plans [with their doctor] in case they are diagnosed with COVID in coming months.”
Kelly also released his review of the fourth Omicron wave, which ended in February. At 19 weeks it lasted longer than expected but was flatter in terms of case numbers and severe illness.
He said it was the first time that there had been a so-called “soup” of variants circling the community, rather than one dominant strain. “[That] actually [makes it] more difficult to predict what is going to happen in the next wave, or even the timing of the next wave,” he said.
“I think we’ve got a ripple at the moment. Whether that will turn into wave … it’s difficult to predict at this stage. But certainly, there has been an increase in numbers over the last few weeks.”
Kelly also said that hybrid immunity – meaning the combination of immunity from vaccines and prior infections – was making a difference, particularly in more vulnerable populations, with COVID death rates among First Nations, culturally and linguistically diverse, and disabled people now closer to resembling the general population.
“These are positive things,” Kelly said. “There is still a need to protect our most vulnerable people and that’s very clearly the policy that we’re doing now.”
He said the most at risk remained elderly people, particularly in aged care homes, as he strongly advised people over 65 to get a booster vaccine if they had not received one or been vaccinated in the past six months.
The government will also extend the disaster payment scheme for aged care workers, which had been due to expire at the end of March. It will continue paying $750 a week for workers who contract COVID but do not have leave entitlements.
Kelly said the department was giving personal protective equipment and rapid antigen tests to aged care facilities, and he would be writing to all providers on Friday to remind them of the key issues with COVID, the flu and other viruses approaching winter.
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