COVID cases are rising rapidly in Ballarat. There are now 60 active cases, with 6 new cases recorded today.

Hepburn Shire has recently recorded two new cases and there are 9 active cases altogether. The number of active cases has been creeping up again over the past month, averaging over 10 during December.

Around 300 people with COVID are in hospital in Victoria and about 10% of intensive care beds are taken up with COVID patients. The current COVID death rate is a little over 1 per million people each day (around 50 per week). European countries with comparable vaccination rates are now experiencing rising death rates of up to 5 per million each day.

Rates for fully vaccinated adults are over 90% for the shire. This is high by international standards but it still only around 75% of the total population because 5-12 year olds have not been vaccinated. They are now a major source of infection with many clusters centred on primary schools across Victoria. Five to twelve year olds will begin vaccinations in early January.

The unknown factor is the Omicron variant that is spreading internationally. Early indications are that Omicron is significantly more infectious than Delta. It is therefore likely the new Omicron variant will spread in Victoria over the next months.

It is too soon to tell whether Omicron will cause more or less serious disease than Delta. Nor is the effectiveness of current vaccinations against Omicron clear. But it is likely that there will be some degree of protection, particularly against serious disease, for those who are full vaccinated and have had a booster shot.

Some countries in the Northern Hemisphere, including the UK, have reintroduced restrictions because rates have risen rapidly during winter and  they are worried the spread of Omicron will put too much stress on their health systems.

The Victorian health system is already under pressure. Staff and beds have been diverted to provide care for COVID patients. As result, non urgent elective procedures have been cancelled. Now people who have delayed care are increasingly presenting in emergency departments. This leads to ambulances having to wait when emergency departments are full. Add to this delays in responding to triple zero calls.

Currently, the number of cases and hospitalisations in Victoria is stable and that has led to optimism about lifting restrictions over summer. But the emerging data on Omicron and rising cases numbers in comparable countries is being closely monitored for its possible local impact.