Victoria’s COVID cases are likely hugely under-reported. Here’s what that means for this wave

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Halfway through the year, and Victoria is in the grips of another COVID-19 wave.

It’s believed about half of people with the virus haven’t been officially recorded, leading to a worrying number of people in hospital during the state’s deadliest month on record.

But as the state inches out of winter, there are signs the worst could be behind us.

Here’s what authorities have had to say.

Only about half of cases are being reported to authorities

A group of pedestrians, all rugged up and several wearing masks, cross Flinders Street on a wet day.
The true number of COVID-positive people in the community could be about double the official number.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Gone are the days when the number of people infected with COVID-19 each day dictated the level of public health measures in place across the state.

It is now estimated only about 45 per cent of people infected with the virus are officially reported to the Department of Health.

Authorities believe that is due to a range of possible reasons — not everyone displays symptoms, not everyone with symptoms will test, the tests are not entirely sensitive, and not everyone who tests positive will report their test result.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said.

“If people haven’t notified with a positive RAT to the department, we don’t know that they are COVID cases.”

About 10 per cent of the cases we do know about at the moment are people being infected for a second or third time, a much higher proportion than in the January Omicron surge.

“Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot, but an additional 10 per cent burden for those who’ve already had an infection is quite significant,” Professor Sutton said.

But we appear to be past the peak of new infections

While the official infection rate may not be an accurate reflection of the exact number of people in the community with the virus, the Chief Health Officer is now optimistic of turning a corner.

“We’re certainly seeing a peak in our case numbers,” Professor Sutton said.

The seven-day average of new infections was last week 11,703, which had fallen on Monday to 10,199.

“We look to be on the downslope there with about a 10 per cent reduction in case numbers compared to last week, so that’s good news,” Professor Sutton said.

Hospitalisations are plateauing but tough times lie ahead

The state saw a significant spike in hospitalisations as winter took hold.

Burnet Institute modelling suggests one explanation for the recent spike is the number of cases going undiagnosed or unreported to the health department.

Once an infection is reported to authorities, Victorians can have access to a range of treatments and therapies which can significantly reduce the risk of serious illness.

“There’s too big a proportion of those presenting to hospital, clearly with COVID, and either testing positive on arrival either at the emergency department during their admission in hospital or as they’re arriving, who haven’t taken oral therapies,” Professor Sutton said.

Experts have repeatedly stressed that access to the antivirals at the start of infection is essential to slowing the illness.

The most recent modelling by the Burnet Institute suggested the state was approaching a peak of hospitalisations in early August, of between 900 and 1,000 patients in hospital with the virus.

But as case numbers have begun to decrease, Professor Sutton said the number of people in hospital was “plateauing, if not past the peak”.

He cautioned “the pressures on the health system will be substantial for some weeks to come”.

“Mask-wearing, meeting outdoors, ventilation, getting your vaccine if you’re eligible — they still make a difference on this downslope,” he said.

“So please see this through the lens of our healthcare workers who continue to battle at the frontline.”

Deaths are still surging, particularly in older Victorians

While the number of people in hospital is lower than in the January Omicron peak, July was the month with the highest COVID-related death toll since the pandemic began in both Victoria and the country.

Of the 4,661 deaths recorded in the state since the pandemic began, 3,050 were reported in 2022.

“We still do have a significant number of deaths, that average has gone up in recent weeks,” Professor Sutton said.



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