South Australia’s top health bureaucrat has contradicted the expectations of the state’s Premier, expressing doubt about a plan to scrap COVID-19 quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated interstate travellers by Christmas.
Last week, SA Premier Steven Marshall spoke about the likelihood of removing quarantine requirements for vaccinated travellers
SA Health’s chief executive Chris McGowan expressed doubts about a Christmas deadline
Meanwhile, SA Health has also spoken of a “school-based” vaccination rollout amid low uptake
Last week, SA Premier Steven Marshall said he was hopeful that anyone looking to travel to SA who had been double vaccinated and had not been to any exposure sites “will be able to come back and enjoy a relatively normal Christmas”.
“I think people, this Christmas, can look forward to having people coming from interstate to spend time with them,” he said on Wednesday.
“People can have some confidence that as we get closer to Christmas there will be pathways for people to come back, and that we’ll also be avoiding statewide lockdowns.”
But SA Health chief executive Chris McGowan today indicated that that deadline may be premature.
When asked whether he was aware of any health advice suggesting that, by December 25, there would be no requirement for quarantining “if you’re coming from interstate”, Mr McGowan responded: “It may have come from someone else, but it hasn’t come from me.”
“Our expectation is when we get to 80 per cent [vaccination] we’ll start to relax the borders but in a controlled and cautious way,” he said.
“We’ll be essentially trying to manage the relaxing of the borders in such a way that we don’t overwhelm the health system, and that’s the most important thing we can do.
“Whether that will or won’t require quarantining — ultimately probably not, in the short term probably, and I’m not sure where that threshold will change.”
Mr McGowan said SA Health had commissioned the Doherty Institute to carry out modelling on South Australia’s likely caseload, and had identified the “capacity to put in 107 additional beds” across the hospital system in the event of a major outbreak once borders reopen.
“Decisions to relax borders [are] going to [mean] essentially introducing the disease to this state, and if that disease gets into the state and spreads rapidly and we’re not ready for it the stakes are much, much higher,” he said.
“We’re planning at this stage for a threshold of up to three to four thousand active cases.
“We’re expecting about 5 per cent of them will be in hospital which means we’ve got to cater for about 300 beds in additional capacity in our hospitals and we’re working with government on how we might do that now.”
‘School-based’ vaccination program in development
Meanwhile, South Australian health authorities are forging ahead with a COVID-19 vaccination plan for schools, amid concern that the state’s jab rates for the youngest eligible cohort are among the worst in the nation.
The Opposition is calling on the state government to establish a plan for responding to a coronavirus outbreak in schools, expressing concern at the apparently low rates among eligible children.
Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program opened up last month to all children between the ages of 12 and 15 years.
Only 3.1 per cent have been fully vaccinated — again the second lowest rate in Australia, ahead of WA and compared to a national rate of just over 9 per cent.
Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said other states had taken considerably bigger strides to reduce the risk of an outbreak in schools, and that SA’s vaccination rates for school children were flagging.
“There are a range of things that are available to government to do in schools that would help mitigate or minimise the spread of COVID, and those steps are being taken interstate but we haven’t seen any evidence of that occurring yet in South Australia,” he said on Sunday.
“We apparently have none of that in South Australia and it’s now time we get our skates on to ensure that we’re not caught left behind.”
But the Premier defended the current arrangements, saying the current settings in schools — which also include mandatory mask-wearing for high school students — are based on SA Health advice.
“If there is a need for changes to that — either the removal of the masks or any further changes to the way that the schools operate — we will implement that,” Mr Marshall said.
Mr Marshall said 1.8 million doses had so far been administered across South Australians, and hinted at a more systematic approach in schools.
“I urge all South Australian parents to encourage their children aged 12 to 15 to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” he said.
“We have been talking with schools about how we can make vaccination easier and more accessible for students and we expect to make more announcements shortly.”
Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier today committed SA to a “school-based program”, targeting areas where vaccination rates were low regardless of age.
“There’s been quite a lot of interest in the young kids, the 12-to-15-year olds,” Professor Spurrier told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Ali Clarke.
“Playford in particular is one area that we’re quite concerned about. If you look at the national figures, that area is particularly low.”
Professor Spurrier said parental permission would be necessary, but also said she was eager to see vaccination opened up to younger cohorts.
“I’m really keen that we can vaccinate younger children but we’ve got to make sure we’re doing it safely,” she said.
“It’s dependent on the peer-reviewed papers being published. We’ve got the initial information from Pfizer about the clinical trials for that younger age group.”