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New rules and a warning of things to come: Premier outlines steps once case numbers rise

Premier Mark McGowan has advised Western Australians of his action plan for when the State hits inevitable ‘high caseload’ of COVID-19 cases, with a Friday afternoon press conference outlining a series of complex changes. 

The detail-heavy guide will apply once WA hits a high caseload, he warned, but said it was too early to define what a high caseload is, drawing a distinction between large numbers in the community while infectious and similar or larger numbers who might be infected while in isolation.  

“There is no hard number of cases that define what a high caseload environment is,” he told the media.  

“It will be a combination of average case numbers, the extent at which these case numbers can be linked, and the amount of time cases can be infectious in the community.” 

While the detail of the changes will continue to be refined in coming days and weeks, here’s what we know so far.  

Contact definitions have changed 

Some of the key words we have become familiar with throughout the pandemic will have new definitions and as a result, new actions will be in place for those that meet the criteria.  

Casual contact: The term casual contact will cease in WA. This means that if someone is at an exposure site at the same time as a positive case, they will not immediately be required to testing and isolate. If they experience any symptoms, however, they should get a PCR test immediately. 

 Close contact: The term close contact has now been redefined, in line with national guidelines. This will now include:  

  • A household member or intimate partner of a person with COVID-19 that has had contact with them during the infectious period, or someone who has had close personal interaction with a person with COVID-19 during infection OR 
  • A person who has had a close personal interaction with a person with COVID-19, with that interaction defined as:  
  • 15 minutes or more of face-to-face contact where a mask was not worn by either person OR
  • more than two hours in a small room with a case during the infectious period where masks were removed for that period OR 
  • Other specific circumstances where the person is advised by WA Health that they are a close contact. 

This means isolation rules are changing  

Much like our neighbours over East, there is widespread expectation that case numbers will climb sharply in WA once Omicron really gets going. In that case, having swathes of the population in quarantine after exposure to a positive case or in isolation with the virus could see industries shut down, hospital systems buckle and schools empty.   

To combat this, a range of changes to isolation rules are also on the horizon.  

Right now, a close contact of a positive case is required to get tested and isolate for a full 14 days, even if they don’t develop symptoms or test negative on a PCR or RAT. When the high caseload threshold is reached, new rules apply.  

If you test positive: 

  • WA will halve the number of days positive cases are required to isolate (from 14 days down to 7 days). Once asymptomatic, the isolation period can end.  
  • If cases continue to be symptomatic beyond day 7, they must remain in isolation until they are symptom-free 

If you are a close contact of someone who tests positive: 

  • A symptomatic close contact must isolate for 7 days from the point of exposure to a positive case 
  • They must take a PCR or RAT as soon as possible 
  • If the test is positive, they must follow protocol for a positive case 
  • If the result is negative, they must take another RAT 24 hours later 
  • If that test is negative, they can take a final RAT on day 7 and if still negative they can leave isolation, provided they have no symptoms and no new household members have tested positive.  
  • An asymptomatic close contact must isolate for 7 days but only needs to take a test on day 7 prior to leaving isolation.  
  • If that test is positive, they should follow the symptomatic close contact protocol.  
  • If the RAT on day 7 is negative they can leave isolation, provided they have no symptoms and no new household members have tested positive. 

Critical workers get new rules as well  

WA will have new testing and isolation protocols for critical workers working in roles either critical to the COVID-19 response or to the continuation of critical services that prevent significant harm. This includes those who work prevents a loss of life, catastrophic impacts to safety or welfare, lack of access to essential goods, but can also include those roles necessary for the safe continuation of services with specialist skills. 

The Premier says it does not mean ordinary workers who might be useful but are not critical to ordinary operations.  

Key services and skills on the list include: 

  • Transport, freight and logistics, including public transport 
  • Food, beverage and pharmaceutical manufacturing, supply and retail (e.g., supermarkets, grocery stores and pharmacies) 
  • Petrol stations and truck stops 
  • Agriculture (for the purpose of food supply and biosecurity) 
  • Critical resources including mining, power, utilities and waste management services 
  • Building and construction 
  • Corrective and judicial services 
  • Police and emergency services 
  • Schools (K-12) and childcare (specific protocols will be in place for these particular settings) 
  • Health care services 
  • Social assistance and residential care 
  • Veterinary services and 
  • Funeral, crematorium and cemetery services. 

If you are a critical worker in one of these groups, you have your own testing and isolating protocols if you become a close contact. 

Briefly,  

  • If a close contact and symptomatic, follow symptomatic close contact rules and isolate 
  • If asymptomatic, and you are required to work for continuity of operations, you must have a negative RAT daily 
  • When working you must work with a surgical mask, use other PPE where possible, and, if possible, travel alone 
  • When outside of work, you must self-isolate. 

Although these workers can continue working while close contacts, they are not able to work while positive for COVID-19. 

  • If a RAT is positive, you must self-isolate for 7 days. 
  • If symptoms ever develop, you must follow symptomatic close contact rules. 

What else does business need to know?  

 For business, the arrival of Omicron in earnest will be a challenge. Besides sick workers and potential labour shortages, there is also the impact of staff juggling caring responsibilities as the children become ill, or households are required to isolate, as well as the ever-present challenge of avoiding the virus outside the workplace.  

A few additionally points today help fill in the picture for what to expect:

  1. Schools have their own rules, and they are complex. A full guide to what parents, students, teachers and school workers can expect is expected by the first week of February. The state goal, though, will be to keep schools open and operating, even if there are cases of COVID in a class.  
  2. Contact tracing remains important. Although casual contacts will no longer be required to isolate, using the ServiceWA app or the SafeWA app makes it easier for contract tracers to to determine exposure and potentially identify close contacts.  
  3. The rules for critical industry employers are not automatic. Employers who fit into one of the above critical industries must register their information with the State Government, and not every role is likely to be considered critical. An online registration period will be developed ahead of these settings coming into place.
  4. Expect more changes to come. The Premier has flagged a raft of other measures and policy settings in coming days and weeks, so keeping an eye on the COVID Announcement page and HealthyWA sites will help keep you across any changes.  
  5. And finally, be prepared. If your industry will be required to increase PPE, use Rapid Antigen Tests or reduce contact with one another – now is the time to begin planning. We have laid out some tactics to help you prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak in our recent article ‘As WA prepares to reopen, what can we expect from Omicron?’ and we will continue to look at industry-specific advice and communications guidance as the storm — finally — hits.  

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