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What really triggered WA’s ‘close contact’ changes

Under mounting pressure from key industry groups, schools, health worker lobbies and the state’s media, Mr McGowan took advantage of his government’s loose definitions to pull the trigger on a transition.

The Premier was adamant on Monday the changes were not happening because of community pressure, despite hundreds of students and teachers and their families having to go through 14 days of self-isolation when several schools recorded cases. Several mine sites had also been impacted by COVID-19 in recent weeks.

Bizarrely, Mr McGowan pointed to how WA had jumped from nine community cases on January 28 to 26 on Monday when justifying the switch.

“It’s a 150 per cent increase,” he said. “On top of that we had a number of people come in over the weekend [because of a February 5 easing of state entry requirements].

“So there’s 10,000 people come through the airport, another 2000 across the road border.

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“Whilst those people are required to quarantine — they’re going to be monitored by G2G pass, they’ll have testing requirements and the like on them — we do expect that there will be some leakage out of that.

“Opening ourselves up to more risks does mean the virus will spread faster; given our low case numbers for so long it may shock some people.”

The case increase from nine to 26 is not why WA brought in the rules though considering there was 22 recorded on January 29.

And health authorities have not detailed any other ‘leakages’ from self-isolating arrivals even though thousands of people have been doing so safely for more than a month.

Despite Mr McGowan’s protests the close contact change was not brought on by community pressure, Dr Robertson in his February 6 health advice to the Premier made it clear the old rules were no longer workable and something had to give.

“Given WA’s increasing number of cases, particularly in large numbers, the number of people who are required to quarantine as close or casual contacts is now disproportionate to the risk,” he said.

“A change to the quarantine period will promote confidence within the community and industry that WA is moving towards a transition to ‘living with COVID’ and is expected to improve public engagement and trust.

“It will have great benefits to industry in allowing workers who have traveled into WA to commence their employment sooner.”

Dr Robertson also wrote the community would be more inclined to cooperate with contact tracing efforts with less onerous quarantine requirements.

He cited several studies and noted how a recent survey by the federal Department of Health found only six per cent of 1382 COVID-19 cases which had come into Australia, over an unknown period, were first testing positive after seven days in quarantine.

Studies have been emerging since January indicating it took as little as three days for Omicron to incubate.

Why the government did not go sooner with the rule change is a bit of a head-scratcher.

Australian Medical Association WA president Mark Duncan-Smith, who has been one of the many voices calling for the reduction for close contact isolation periods, says the science had already been pointing to the need for a seven-day quarantine rather than keeping people unnecessarily locked up.

“It makes an incongruous policy which is sort of approaching bureaucratic hypocrisy when you’re punishing kids with an unnecessary week of isolation but you still have nightclubs open,” he said.

Dr Robertson said the state had been successful in suppressing Omicron to date with the rules it had, but regardless of this fact case rises would very soon rise exponentially and within days.

“Nobody notices doubling at the early stages,” he said.

“But if you look at the numbers, unfortunately, more and more of those cases are locally acquired, more and more of those cases are unlinked, so we would anticipate within the next few days that our numbers will start to double.

“You will notice when we go up from 36 to 72 to 100. So we are looking at that and pre-emptively putting those measures in because we are expecting that we will get those rises in the coming days.”

Dr Robertson said it would not be long before contact tracers would be unable to find every exposure site an infected person had been to.

The Chief Health Officer says it is better to recalibrate the system to focus on finding contacts who were at the highest risk of contracting the disease.

The AMA WA and state opposition have called for a new reopening date but Dr Robertson did not say when exactly a review, set to take place within four weeks from January 20, would actually take place.

Dr Robertson would not be drawn on whether the fast take-up of booster shots – with 45 per cent of over-18s triple-jabbed which is about 10 per cent higher than the Chief Health Officer estimated the state would be at in early February – meant the state could open before winter.

WA could theoretically have about 80 per cent of the over 16-cohort triple jabbed by around March 13, but the authorities say they are not tying an opening simply to vaccination rates.

Nor will the government say when stricter restrictions will be brought in, despite saying similar measures to South Australia would come in at a lower caseload than that state brought them in at.

But judging by how fast WA has gone from holding off its border and then bringing in new contact protocols, it probably will not be long.

Mr McGowan has been trying to ram home the number of deaths occurring in other states of late but on Monday he also told WA not to panic.

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“Western Australians should take higher caseload seriously but it’s not a cause for panic. Not at all,” he said.

“We’ve prepared for this, keep up your activities, keep going to work, support your local businesses.

“Be sensible and be safe. If you’re sick, stay home and get tested. Check in at venues and check the exposure sites. Wear your mask and, if you haven’t already, get your third vaccination dose.

“We can minimise disruption, I’m determined not to make the mistakes that other states and other countries have made.”

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