April 20, 2022 | By Bronwen Largier

Talk of the Omicron strain of COVID being milder than the previous Delta strain, alongside a broad desire for COVID to become endemic – like the flu – may have many thinking that this strain of COVID is not so different from getting the flu and that we should all just get on with getting it.

The numbers, however, paint a bit of a different picture.

In 2019, 4,124 people died of either flu or pneumonia around Australia. And 2019 was a bad year – flu and pneumonia deaths were up around 50 per cent compared to 2010 and 2014.

The 2019 flu season included 1,187 deaths in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, over an entire year.

In contrast, since the Omicron era of the pandemic began just shy of five months ago, 1,940 people have died with COVID in NSW.

That’s 163 per cent of the deaths for a full year of a bad flu season in 2019 in less than five months of a so-called “mild” COVID strain. And we haven’t even gotten to winter yet.

And these Omicron-era deaths occurred with over 92 per cent of the 16+ population fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

In 2019, the number of people under the age of 85 who died of flu or pneumonia was 399.

During the first five months of Omicron, 760 people under the age of 80 have died with COVID.

And 310 of those were under 70.

While these numbers may be refined in due course, as there is a difference between dying “with” COVID and “of” it – NSW Health is looking into this already – they should act as a reminder than the pandemic and its consequences are still very much in play.

With governments rolling back restrictions, along with the perception this creates amongst many that the pandemic is largely over, there is scope for these sobering numbers to increase further, with the Australian winter still ahead, waning uptake of booster doses and waning immunity of all vaccine doses over time.

Loosening restrictions and relaxing attitudes also mean the burden of preventing COVID from both entering an event environment and reducing the likelihood of transmission within our setting if it does, is falling increasingly heavily on the shoulders of the industry and event professionals.

As an example, from Saturday, in Australia’s two largest states there is nothing legally stopping someone who lives with an active COVID case from attending your event. Scrapping of international travel testing and density limits also increase the risk at events.

And with the infectiousness of COVID being significantly higher than other widely circulating viruses, like the flu – the Omicron variant is likely more than three times as contagious – our industry needs to be going above and beyond what is standard – in building design, in ventilation and in air filtration. Most buildings and standards were not developed with the realities of a pandemic specifically in mind – indeed the world has never experienced a pandemic in the modern age of business events, air travel and a global population of over seven billion. Even standards developed in the first year of the pandemic are now out of date, with the Omicron strain more than twice as infectious as the original COVID-19 strain.

So, as what has the potential to be a high transmission industry, we have to do our absolute best to ensure we minimise the spread on our watch.