What Covid-normal looks like in year three of the pandemic

As we enter our third year of living with Covid-19, life is starting to resemble the pre-pandemic world, but adjusting to the new normal isn’t always easy.

Although Covid case numbers are continuing to surge around the nation, high vaccination rates means Australians can start to consider a more normal-looking school year, returning to the office, and enjoying the activities we once took for granted.

But the return to everyday life is not without changes, as leading epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett from Deakin University told House of Wellness radio.

“Everybody now knows somebody in their immediate circle who’s had Covid, and it should make us more cautious because you can still make measures to prevent exposure to Covid, so it’s about being prepared but finding ways to still enjoy your summer.”

Prof Bennett explains what we can expect life in the third year of the pandemic to look like.

Protective measures to continue

All those Covid-safe measures we’ve become accustomed to over the past couple of years should be a way of life for a little longer yet, says Prof Bennett.

This includes social distancing, sanitising our hands, and wearing masks.

“It’s about getting the balance right between stepping up our control without being so anxious, where we’re trying to imagine the worst all the time,” Prof Bennett told House of Wellness radio co-hosts Jo Stanley, Luke Hines and Gerald Quigley.

“It’s about being prepared, but finding ways to continue mixing and doing the things you want to over summer, but doing it in a safer way to try and stop those higher rates of exposure turning into something that might have you feeling quite unwell.”

An under-fire health system

With the spread of Omicron, Australia’s health resources are currently stretched like never before throughout the pandemic.

The Omicron strain of Covid is generally mild, but the sheer volume of cases test hospital resources, Prof Bennett explains.

“Even though you’re less likely to go to hospital – they’re saying about 70 per cent less likely – we’ve got a lot more cases, so number wise a smaller proportion end up in hospital but a large number.”

Hospitals need to manage this caseload on top of those who would normally arrive at hospital for any reason – and many of these may unknowingly have Covid.

“This presents an infection control challenge for the hospital,” Prof Bennett says.

“Then you’ve got staff who may unfortunately also have the virus – some from the community, some from socialising, some from work.

“So it’s that terrible storm coming together.

“High population incidence means other patients and staff are also challenged.”

Learning to “live with the virus”

For the first two years of the pandemic, Australians were focussed on suppressing the virus.

With strong vaccination numbers and a more transmissible strain of the virus, the response strategy has switched to “living with the virus”.

Transitioning to this new approach is all about managing the situation, says Prof Bennett.  “It’s about getting the messaging right, so people are motivated to keep this under control do the right thing rather than being motivated by fear all the time,” she says.

“We talk a lot about living with the virus, but it’s also about living with the measures of controlling the virus because that’s what impacts our day-to-day and trying to pare those back so they’re as effective as can be but also minimal in terms of disrupting daily life – whether that’s our social networks, schooling, and our work.”

Striking the right balance will require constant monitoring, says Prof Bennett.

“So we’re watching very closely, we’re evaluating, and we can see exactly where that needle needs to sit on that sliding scale of control versus the impact of interventions on the community.”

Written by Charlotte Brundrett