Australia recorded its deadliest day of the Covid pandemic, with 98 deaths recorded, as the first cases of the BA.2 descendant of the Omicron variant were recorded in New South Wales.
There are now 35 cases of BA.2 across Australia, including Tasmania, ACT, Queensland, WA and Victoria.
Of the new deaths, 39 were recorded in Victoria, 35 in NSW, 18 in Queensland and one in the ACT. The previous one-day high was on January 21, when 88 deaths were recorded.
As overall cases level off, the country’s head of nursing and midwifery Professor Alison McMillan said death rates are expected to remain high for some time.
“As we have seen over the two years of the pandemic, the number of deaths associated with these cases remains higher for a longer period of time,” she said on Friday.
“There is a delay in the number of deaths, unfortunately we have seen a number of deaths.”
Director of NSW Health Pathology at Westmead Hospital and immunologist Professor Dominic Dwyer told Guardian Australia that three cases of the BA.2 strain were reported in NSW on Friday and pathologists are closely monitoring all Australian cases .
“You mostly see it in returning travelers,” Dwyer said. “It is unclear if it is more transmissible at this stage, but it is being investigated, with the likely spread in Australia still unclear.”
Denmark, India, the UK and northern Europe have recorded the most BA.2 cases. Although it appears to outperform the original Omicron strain, especially in Denmark, there is no evidence of increased severity.
It comes as eligibility for Covid-19 booster shots has been widened to include 16 and 17 year olds, after the medical regulator gave interim approval for the age group to receive a third dose.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said final approval has yet to be given by the country’s top vaccine advisory group, Atagi.
“We hope to receive Atagi’s advice within the next week, if not sooner, and if it’s positive we can make it available immediately,” he said.
The waiting time between the second and third dose will also be reduced from four months to three months from Monday, allowing more people to get the booster. However, some states and territories have already reduced the wait time to a three-month gap.
There have been more than 7.3 million reminders administered across the country, with two-thirds of eligible people having received theirs. While NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said people who had recently contracted Covid-19 should wait four to six weeks after infection to receive the booster, Professor McMillan urged people to receive the third dose immediately after symptoms resolve.
“We know that an initial infection potentially gives you a little protection against Covid, but we don’t really know how much yet,” she said. “But we know the booster will provide you with high levels of protection against serious illness and death.”
A recent NSW customer service survey found that half of those eligible for the Covid-19 booster did not know they were eligible for their third dose.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended aged care minister Richard Colbeck, after it was revealed he chose to attend cricket at a Covid-19 committee hearing as 40% of the system was blocked.
Colbeck said he could not attend the hearing due to the diversion of resources from “urgent and critical work”, but his register of interests showed he had accepted tickets for the Ashes test in Hobart during three days.
“Ministers have many responsibilities, I can understand the criticism…I think Richard took that into account,” Morrison told 4BC radio station.
“I know what he does every day for the well-being of people living in our seniors’ residences, and he will take the criticism on the chin and get back to work.”
Morrison said 86% of aged care facilities had been visited for residents to receive the reminder, with the rest due to receive theirs next week.
There have been 13,333 cases in New South Wales, while 12,755 infections were recorded in Victoria on Friday. Queensland reported 9,974, NT 940, while there were 734 and 584 new cases in the ACT and Tasmania respectively.
South Australia has announced that QR code check-ins will no longer be required in retail environments in the future, but will still be required in hospitality and high-risk environments. This state recorded 1,846 new cases on Friday.