ACT has done away with close and random contacts with COVID-19 and measures exposure based on high, moderate or low risk

The ACT government’s approach to dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak has changed dramatically.

The number of cases is rising sharply, and infections are spreading faster than the authorities can detect them.

As Omicron appears more contagious and yet milder than other variants of coronavirus, authorities are now prioritizing vaccinations rather than limiting the outbreak.

As a result, the government is taking a step back from tracking the disease and asking Canberrans to step up – or, as ACT Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman put it, “help us a little more”.

The familiar definitions of close or random contacts are gone.

Hospitals will also complete the complete separation of COVID-19 infected patients from others.

Most of these changes took effect from one day to the next. Here’s how they affect you.

I think I got COVID-19. What should I do?

Cars are queuing along a road near a sign with the text 'COVID test use right lane'.
Canberrans with symptoms of COVID-19 should still be tested if possible.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

So far, little has changed if you have flu-like symptoms: you should go to a clinic to get a PCR test as soon as possible and isolate until you receive the result.

Yet this has not been easy in recent weeks as the demand for testing exploded.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said about one in six Canberrans was tested in the last fourteen days, but clinics and laboratories now operated at almost full capacity.

He confirmed rapid antigen tests (RATs) was an option if PCR testing was unavailable.

“The most important thing is that those who need a test get a test,” Mr Barr said.

A person holds a thin white rectangular box with the words COVID-19 antigen test written on it.
Rapid antigen tests will be increasingly used instead of laboratory tests.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

The National Cabinet also last night agreed to reduce reliance on the more accurate PCR tests to ease the pressure on nurses and laboratory staff.

Dr. Coleman said that in the near future, more Canberrans would self-diagnose with RATs and not have to validate a positive result with a PCR.

“It is quite likely that for some groups of people we will assume they have COVID-19 based on the fact that they had symptoms and they have come in contact with someone who has COVID-19,” she said. .

I have tested positive for COVID. What should I do?

Cheryl wears personal protective equipment and holds a cotton swab.
COVID-positive Canberrans still need to be isolated for seven days.(ABC News: Niki Burnside)

Essential, The quarantine requirements are still in place for infected people.

So if you test positive, you should isolate for seven days from the date of your test, and stay isolated until ACT Health clears you.

The big change is in how the government finds those you may have infected. Short answer: it does not – you do.

Throughout the pandemic, health authorities responded to confirmed cases with the so-called TTIQ protocol: sample people exposed to the virus, track their contacts, isolate them until they were confirmed as healthy and quarantine people with the disease.

That process was actually settled last night, as was the well-known hierarchy of close, relaxed and “monitor for symptoms” contacts.

Instead, a new system that Dr. Coleman said, was about society helping itself and freeing officials to focus on those who were most vulnerable.

“We will not be able to continue to do this for everyone.”

The government already has that stopped identifying sites of exposure in public.

So your job, if you get the disease, is to help others you may have infected. Here’s how to do it.

How do I know my risk of being exposed to COVID-19?

Different people walk through Canberra wearing face masks
Infected Canberrans are expected to assess the risk they pose to others.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

There is four categories in ACT’s new exposure regime.

Each imposes different rules on the person you were in contact with, depending on the likelihood of you infecting them:

  • Household: The people you live with are most vulnerable. They “must” have a PCR test, declare online to ACT Health that they live with a positive case, and quarantined for seven days.
  • High: The ones you spent “a long time” with – for example, most of the day – since two days before you had symptoms or tested positive. You may have spent the night with them or a longer period indoors where you interacted closely without masks. They “should” get a PCR test, quarantined for seven days and take a RAT on day six.
  • Moderate: People you spent “some time” with, such as a few hours, a joint dinner or close company at a bar. They “should” take a RAT or PCR test as soon as possible and, if negative, take another RAT or PCR test on or after day six. The requirement to quarantine until a negative result is received still applies to the first test; there is no requirement to quarantine while awaiting the results of the second test. If you have symptoms, go to a test clinic for a PCR test.
  • Low: Others you spent “very short” time with, or people who spent time somewhere where a COVID-19 case was. They “should” be tested if they develop symptoms – in other words, what everyone in Canberra should do anyway – and quarantine until you get a negative result.

Dr. Coleman acknowledged that this was a major shift in the handling of the outbreak.

“There are no right or wrong answers here.”

Infected and non-infected patients to share hospital wards

Canberra Hospital's Emergency Department has been expanded.
Some COVID-19-positive patients will be in regular wards, separated from others by curtains.(ABC News: Penny McLintock)

The second radical change is in how hospitals will treat COVID-19 infected patients.

To date, everyone with the disease has been kept away from others in separate wards.

But as coronavirus becomes more prevalent where many people are unaware that they have it, this separation will block access to the specialist departments they may need.

From now on, COVID-19 departments will only be used for infected people who have respiratory symptoms or a high infection load.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said this meant patients with a mild or asymptomatic form of the disease would be placed in “the most appropriate ward for their condition”.

Stephen-Smith acknowledged that this could worry many hospital users.

“I want to assure Canberrans that when they make these changes, the focus remains on keeping hospitals well-functioning and ensuring that they are safe for all patients and staff.”

These safety precautions include all patients and workers wearing effective masks (P2 or N95), curtains drawn around each bed and, with a few exceptions, no visitors.

But new “wards for vulnerable people” – such as patients who are immunocompromised or undergoing treatments that put them at risk – will open this week to provide extra protection.

So today it’s not so much about small steps, as it’s several giant leaps into a new “COVID-19 normal” Canberra.

Barr said the next few weeks would be “challenging.”

But the government hopes that Canberra – Australia’s most vaccinated city – will largely survive unscathed.

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