Australian Open looms, but it doesn’t have to be a COVID-19 disaster

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There is absolutely no doubt that we are going to go through one of the more challenging phases of the pandemic. The emergence of the Omicron variant, with its ability to evade the immune response and its increased transmissibility, is going to be yet another significant test for us.

We’ve already seen case numbers rise to levels we have not seen before, and they are going to rise even higher, and with that our public health system is going to be put under significant levels of strain. There is just no way of underplaying this, the next few weeks are going to take us to a place we haven’t been before in Australia and it’s going to be difficult.

Rafael Nadal is in Melbourne to play in the Australian Open.Credit:AP

On the surface this seems like the worst of all possible times to host the Australian Open. In January 2022, we face the same questions that we faced in January 2021 when the grand slam tennis tournament last headed to our shores.

Is it prudent to host this event? Do the risks outweigh the rewards? Are we going to expose the community and the players to an unnecessary risk? All of these questions are indeed appropriate to ask and it would be remiss to not ask them.

However, counterintuitively, we are probably in a much better position to hold this event than we were last year, before Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine program had begun, when players were forced to quarantine and the event was postponed for three weeks. In my opinion, the question is not whether we host the Australian Open but making sure we do this in as sensible and safe way as possible.

We keep hearing this phrase that we need to “learn to live with the virus”. In tackling this issue of the Australian Open, it is worth reiterating what this actually means in practice. It doesn’t mean that we can now pretend COVID-19 doesn’t exist. We have to react and respond to challenges that are thrown at us in a sensible way, the latest of which is the Omicron variant.

But it also doesn’t mean that we should react to situations in the way we did last year. A lot has changed. We have to get more comfortable with COVID-19 circulating in the community and understand that the implications of this are quite different to what they were at the start of the pandemic.

So let’s do a bit of a stocktake and assess just where we are compared to last year. The key difference of course between now and then is the vaccine coverage of the community. Despite the obvious need to get boosters into arms as quickly as we can, we are in an incredibly strong position as far as vaccine coverage is concerned. More than 91 per cent of Australians over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated, with more than 92 per cent of eligible people in Victoria and more than 93 per cent in NSW having had two jabs.

Although Omicron has an ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity to a degree, it looks to cause less severe disease, and this, combined with high levels of double-dose vaccine coverage changes the risk calculus in a substantial way in terms of the likelihood of severe disease, hospitalisation and death resulting from COVID-19 infection.

It hasn’t been discussed as much as vaccines, but there have been some incredible breakthroughs in terms of COVID-19 treatments, with more to come no doubt over the coming year. We now have at our disposal anti-inflammatories, antiviral medicines and antibody therapies that all seem to be very effective at treating COVID-19 infections and modifying the course of the infection.

There have been some incredible breakthroughs in terms of COVID-19 treatments, meaning fewer people in the future should be hospitalised.Credit:Justin McManus

And along with this we have a much better understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and what we need to do to limit transmission. We understand more about the importance of airborne transmission and the role of ventilation in limiting spread, and we are all more skilled individually in preventing transmission through mask wearing, social distancing, hand hygiene and the like.

Meanwhile, staff working at the Australian Open will undergo daily rapid antigen tests, while patrons, players and support staff will be required to be double vaccinated.

So in what may seem like reverse logic, with cases as high as they are right now, there is less reason to postpone the Australian Open than there was last year.

The implications of the Australian Open resulting in cases entering the community are completely different in an environment in which we are tolerating cases circulating in the community, rather than in a COVID-free environment when even one case entering the community had potentially dire implications.

This is not to say we can be complacent. We should do everything we can and use every tool in our toolkit to safeguard the community and players, but we should take comfort in the fact that we understand what is needed to be done and we have the experience of running this event last year which should have put us in good stead.

Hassan Vally is Associate Professor in Epidemiology at Deakin University.

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