There once was a time when official health policy said that anyone who has had COVID would be classified as immune to the virus for the following three months. This time has sadly passed.
The BA.4 and BA.5 variants are causing major concern around the country, prompting officials to cut the COVID immunity period from three months to just 28 days.
The change, which has been implemented in several states and territories, including New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, and Western Australia, will mean that those who have had the disease in the past three months will be subject to more rapid testing requirements.
Previous rules stated that after having contracted the illness, people did not have to test again for COVID if required for work or to enter sensitive places like care homes, for three months. Now, having COVID only gives you an official month of immunity.
This is due to the fact that the new variants, which are thought to now be dominant in Australia, are so much more infectious than previous strains. BA.5, with a reproduction number now higher than any other disease we’ve ever seen, is so infectious that its spread is being dubbed the “reinfection wave.” Thankfully, it’s not more severe than previous strains, and prior infection and vaccines should make catching it less serious for most healthy adults.
State changes to the COVID immunity period follow after advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee changed on Friday. The peak federal health body for disease control said it was necessary to take further precautions to control the new strains.
“BA.4 and BA.5 are associated with increased immune escape and we are likely to see rates of reinfection rise among those who have previously been infected with an earlier COVID-19 variant and those who are up to date with their vaccinations,” AHPPC said in a statement.
“Given reinfections may occur as early as 28 days after recovery from a previous COVID-19 infection, the AHPPC advises that the reinfection period be reduced from 12 weeks to 28 days.”
In NSW, Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said that the new variants are circulating widely in the community.
“They are more able to evade immunity gained from previous infection and vaccination reinfection is more likely and possible just weeks after a prior infection,” she said in a statement.
“We’re urging people who have recently had COVID-19, even if they left isolation in the past four weeks, not to be complacent. If you develop symptoms again, make sure to test and isolate.”
South Australia’s Health Minister Chris Picton said that the changes were “unfortunate” but that they reflect the reality of the situation.
“For 12 weeks people have had this get out of jail free card for COVID, unfortunately what we’re seeing with BA.4 and BA.5 has a lot more immune escape compared to previous strains,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide on Monday.
“So if you’ve had BA.1 and BA.2 in previous waves that we’ve seen, that isn’t necessarily going to protect you from BA.4 and BA.5.”
Jeremy Rockliff, Health Minister for Tasmania, expressed similar concerns and said that people need to take extra precautions as we head into the depths of winter.
“While we are transitioning to living with COVID-19, given the increase in case numbers it’s important to take personal responsibility by following the COVID-safe behaviours – practice good hand hygiene, follow social distancing and I’d encourage you to wear a mask when you can’t – particularly in indoor public spaces, test when you have symptoms and stay home when you are unwell,” he said in a statement.
The takeaway here is that just because you’ve had COVID recently, that does not mean you won’t get it again soon. If you’ve got symptoms, get tested, even if you think it’s not possible to catch it again because, as the AHPPC have said, these new variants mean that it definitely is.