COVID variants detected in SA for first time as health authorities also prepare for flu

South Australia’s public health chief has issued a warning to parents about reduced flu immunity ahead of winter, as new COVID variants are detected in the state.

SA Health said the latest genomic sequencing of positive PCR results had led to the first detections of the BA.4 and BA.5 COVID sub-variants in South Australia.

Each case was in a returning international traveller.

Both variants have already been detected interstate, after previously being identified in South Africa.

“At the moment we’re just watching the epidemiology or the case numbers in South Africa,” Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“There’s no indication that these are more severe or more transmissible.”

Professor Spurrier said one broader social side-effect of COVID had been a significant decline in flu cases in the past two years.

But she said that South Australia’s influenza caseload was now “starting to really kick up”, with children under the age of two now facing their first full flu season.

“Children younger than five cannot have the COVID vaccine but from six months and up they can have the flu vaccine.

“If you’re thinking of vaccinating your children for COVID — and that’s five years and above — please also think about having your child vaccinated for influenza this year.”

Professor Spurrier recommended flu vaccination for children.(ABC News)

Professor Spurrier said it was now possible to have flu and COVID shots administered at the same time, and said it would soon be possible to be tested for both concurrently.

“SA Pathology are all set to go to be able to do the duplex, so do flu and COVID on the same specimen, we’re just waiting to be at the right time point to switch that on,” she said.

Emergency repeal on track for June

Meanwhile, the state government is planning to introduce amendments to the Public Health Act that would allow COVID-19 restrictions to be in force under that legislation rather than the Emergency Management Act.

Premier Peter Malinauskas said the goal was to remove the state of emergency by June 30.

It was originally put in place by the former Liberal government in March 2020.

Mr Malinauskas said he had briefed Opposition Leader David Speirs on Labor’s plans but he was unclear on the Liberals’ position.

“The best course of action is for the bipartisan support that has existed for a long time on COVID to be maintained,” Mr Malinauskas told ABC Radio Adelaide.

Mr Speirs is isolating with COVID-19 and — along with several other Liberal MPs to have contracted the virus, the latest of whom is Tim Whetstone — will not be in parliament for the first day of sittings today.

A tram at a level crossing with a bus waiting behind boomgates
Professor Spurrier said it made sense to retain mandatory mask-wearing on public transport.(ABC News: Eugene Boisvert)

Professor Spurrier attributed anecdotal reports of intensified symptoms to changing public perceptions rather than the virus itself.

“I think people have probably underestimated how sick you get with COVID,” she said.

“We’ve perhaps heard, ‘well, Omicron is less severe’ – it’s less severe than Delta but Delta was pretty bad.”

She said, while mask-wearing requirements have been generally relaxed, it was appropriate that they remained in place for high-risk settings.

“One area that causes some people some frustration is continuing to require masks on public transport and rideshares,” she said.

“That’s also because people who have those higher levels of susceptibility in terms of chronic health problems or disability or are older may not have their own car and that may be the only way they can get around in South Australia.”

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