As WA prepares to reopen, what can we expect from Omicron?


Purple 10 Jan 2022
7 mins
Cafe workers wearing masks

Remember the days where Australia’s COVID-19 cases hovered between the 1,000 to 2,000 mark? You should because that was a few weeks ago. 

How long ago that now seems.  

At the time of writing, Australia had just reached a record, nearing 100,000 positive COVID-19 test results recorded nationally in 24 hours. But even that figure is merely an estimate, with thousands being turned away as testing clinics reach capacity each day within just a few hours of opening.  

By the time you’re reading this, it’s not an exaggeration to assume that figure has probably doubled. 

In fact, we have gone from almost nothing six months ago to the dubious privilege of having one of the highest case numbers per million in the world.  

 The exact transmission rate of COVID-19 variant Omicron is changing constantly, but what we can confirm is the number of cases is increasing exponentially thanks to the COVID-19 Omicron variant. 

Western Australia is — fortunately — a few steps behind our neighbours over east when it comes to facing outbreaks of new COVID-19 variants. So what should we expect when our borders finally open?  

What do we know about the transmissibility of Omicron? 

With just a quick google search of ‘COVID cases around the world’ it’s clear to see what Omicron means for us on a global scale – cases.  

Cases like we have never seen before. The World Health Organisation is reporting around 10 million cases a week — or a 72 per cent increase on the numbers seen at Christmas and around twice the worst peaks over the past two years. 

Scientists have narrowed the contagiousness of Omicron down to a few significant factors: 

  1. It appears to have a shorter incubation period – which means many more cycles of infection, and less time for people who are exposed to take necessary precautions to protect others. 
  2.  Rapid replicationa study from the University of Hong Kong suggests Omicron infects and multiplies 70 times faster than the Delta variant in the bronchus, the two large tubes that carry air to your lungs. This means anyone infected will have a lot more of the virus ready to be expelled into the air when they exhale, sneeze or cough.
  3. The variant appears to be transmissible in air – cases in Hong Kong and the UK in early December suggest the virus is easily transmissible without an infectious individual needing to come face to face with others, and a very small amount of the virus can cause infection. 

What to expect when you’re expecting (an outbreak) 

It appears each state and territory around Australia is taking a different approach to tackling this new variant.  

New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have largely taken the perspective that people should ‘expect to be infected’, something reinforced by NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard only a few weeks ago. In contrast, other areas are trying to limit the speed of the spread, if not the spread itself. In the Northern Territory, for example, a ‘lock out’ has been instituted to limit movement of unvaccinated people rather than risk the several hundred cases seen there overwhelming hospital resources. 

With our proposed opening date only weeks away (12.01am, 5 February 2022), it’s no surprise WA is starting to feel a little bit antsy that our safe bubble is about to burst. (Update 25/1/22: Premier Mark McGowan announced on 20 January 2022 that the border opening will be delayed indefinitely). 

What we can expect from our leaders is still uncertain but a few measures have already been locked in.  

  • Vaccination passports. Foreshadowed for a while, proof of vaccination status is now required for events, pubs, taverns, hotels and venues with special facility licences that have a capacity for 500 patrons or more. This list is likely to grow, with gymnasiums and indoor fitness facilities next to require proof of vaccination to enter.  
  • Rapid Antigen Tests are the new toilet paper. It’s very likely that the consumer frenzy over these tests over East will also occur in WA. Now the tests are legal in WA, availability will become a key challenge, particularly with ongoing shortages in Covid-ravaged states, and Premier Mark McGowan confirming that WA would not receive any of the 10 million testing kits acquired by the Commonwealth Government to be distributed to concession card holders.  
  • Mince and Panadol are also the new toilet paper. Transport shortages and supply chain issues are already seeing shelves stripped up and down the Eastern seaboard. WA supermarkets are reporting some shortages, with these expected to grow. As concerns grow, panic buying is likely to follow.  
  • Masks, masks and more masks. Premier Mark McGowan has already confirmed that as of opening day, mask requirements will be in place in ‘high risk’ indoor settings and could be more widely required. Some of these locations are already mandated, including public transport, taxis, rideshare vehicles, and in hospitals and aged care. Make sure you have a comfy mask selection (preferably N95s) at-the-ready.  

What about business?  

We can certainly expect industries like healthcare and tourism to face major impacts if and when we start seeing big Omicron numbers within WA. Retail and hospitality will also likely take a hit as people self-exclude from public places, and business confidence is already shaken. 

The mining sector, which has operated almost without interruption in the pandemic, will also need to be carefully managed, given the risk of transmission in close quarters and the impact of closures on production and export.  

But the immediate pandemic risk for many businesses will be a continuity challenge; how to manage when large portions of the workforce are not just out of the office, but out of action 

That makes this stage of the pandemic different to earlier rounds, where a remote workforce could continue during lockdowns. Instead, businesses need to ponder what might happen if (as seen overseas) as much as a third of your workforce is off sick simultaneously.  

     1. Reconsider continuity risks

A good place to start is with identifying some specific scenarios that might come about and the risk associated with each, including a single positive case, multiple close contacts in your business, or the interruption of activity as large numbers go down with the virus. Think beyond your own staff exposure, as well. Businesses work in ecosystems, so if a key supplier can’t deliver because its workforce is in bed, what will that mean for you? What happens if tender deadlines are looming, and the writing team is unwell? How can you meet your reporting obligations if those who undertake that work become sick?

      2. Have a plan

Once you’ve identified the risks, large and small, it’s time to start thinking about how you can avoid these risks becoming a reality, and the solutions if they do. This sounds like a real cliché at this point, but the best thing you can do is be prepared.  

Just as in March 2020, the pandemic will require creative, nimble responses and workarounds to avoid system collapse. Unlike March 2020, you might be largely on your own, without government support or clear guidance to help you develop those plans.  

At the minimum, refresh your continuity plan and have processes in place if a staff member tests positive, and understand your obligations now for reporting an exposure site and as it may fall to businesses to contact people who might have been exposed if the test and trace system gets overwhelmed. Have messaging ready to notify partners or customers if there are any changes to your business, and so on.  

Not only will these things help tick necessary COVID plan boxes, but it also gives your team more confidence that you are thinking ahead and are ready to lead in volatile times.  

      3. Start rolling out new processes in preparation  

If you can begin to familiarise your team with the changes that may come after 5 February 2022 now, the transition will be as smooth as possible when it’s crunch time. The WA Government has a transition plan with high level options, but wargaming how you might respond if — say — we woke up to the case levels of Victoria is a pragmatic approach to take.  

Some good places to start are: 

  • Make sure your tech is in check.If your team isn’t already in the swing of online communications, now is certainly the time to start. Our Director of Digital, Glenn Langridge, has covered tools for project planning, collaborating and communicating in an online space in an earlier article here.
  • Start the conversation around wellbeing. Some people aren’t phased by COVID-19. Others check location sites every hour and refresh for press conferences multiple times a day. Whichever category your staff members fit into, talk to them about it.Working from home, school shut-downs, fights over milk at Woolies – it’s an unpleasant version of déjà vu.Purple’s Corporate Affairs lead Carina Tan-Van Baren says all conversations need to start from a position of empathy, recognising that fear and anxiety are perfectly normal, and that people will have different personal circumstances that mean their response might not be what you expect.Critically, an empathetic, patient and understanding response now will be remembered once the storm has passed. A response that asks people to choose between work, health and family risks retention and morale.
  • Introduce redundancies. Just as many businesses practised with red teams and blue teams in 2021, separating staff who could fill in if someone with a similar skill set became ill, we might need to identify back-up support within our businesses and bring others up to speed. It could be as simple as asking system-critical personnel to detail their daily activities, to ensure someone else could complete the tasks if they become unwell, or it might be replanning major projects or setting flexible deadlines if team members are unable to work.Our Chief Innovation Officer Ruth Callaghan recommends a focus on automation and knowledge sharing. That means identifying repetitive low-information tasks that can be completed by bots or apps and finding ways to share high-information tasks around, so work can still be completed if those who would normally complete it become unwell.

And then, we wait 

As case numbers continue to grow, it’s easy to see COVID-19 as a wall of statistics and a whole lot of waiting around for press conferences to start. But the human impact is far greater.  

Hospitals all over the world are reaching capacity, families are being separated and people are losing loved ones. Even those who catch the ‘mild’ version can be very unwell.  

Once again, we will need to respond to this stage of the pandemic as we have previous stages — thinking ahead, communicating widely, and working together.  

We can help 

If you’re looking for advice on setting up the perfect webinar, boosting your online presence or searching for some extra in-house support, our experts are here to help. 

Contact our team here. 

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