At 105 years old, May Harrison is arguably Australia’s oldest COVID-19 survivor.
Most important points:
- Experts warn Omicron is good at weathering pre-existing immunity, leading to reinfections
- It is a problem in aged care facilities, with approximately 780 active outbreaks nationwide
- Long-term COVID remains an issue, with data showing 47 Australians have lost their lives as a result
may recentlywarded off the virus and this week celebrated her 105th birthday surrounded by family and friends.
“I was very sick and when I came out I was very weak, but I got over it,” she told ABC.
“We should have had a bigger one” [party] in Sydney Harbour, but they didn’t think I was strong enough.
“But I like my parties.”
May is one of nearly 46,000 Australian seniors to have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
And while the daily press conferences are long gone – and for many people life has returned to something much closer to normal – cases of COVID-19 in Australia remain at around 45,000 per day.
Experts warn that COVID-19 still has “tricks up its sleeve” as reinfections rise and new strains emerge.
Elderly care under COVID pressure
Last week there were more 780 active outbreaks in aged care facilities and the sector is under pressure.
Whiddon Aged Care has 20 centers in NSW and Queensland, including the facility where May lives in south-west Sydney.
Its chief executive, Chris Mamarelis, said the company had strict health and safety practices on site, but high community transmission rates across the country meant the impact of COVID-19 still posed a threat.
“All of our homes are affected by COVID,” he said.
But high vaccinations and strong infection management have helped keep things relatively under control, he added.
Mr Mamarelis said the high numbers of cases were taking a devastating toll on the elderly care workforce — and he was concerned about reinfection.
“We see a lot of staff who need to isolate who has contracted COVID,” he said.
“We don’t find the backup – they just aren’t there. So there’s a huge pressure [particularly] at those regional locations where team members work 12-hour shifts.”
Outside of aged care, large numbers of people continue to contract the virus in the wider community.
For some, it is not their first COVID infection.
Reinfections are on the rise
Figures from across the country show that there are now tens of thousands of Australians who have had COVID more than once, with “COVID reinfection” generally defined as a second encounter with the virus at least three months after the first infection.
More than 20,000 reinfections have been recorded in Victoria. It detects reinfections through data matching processes.
In New South Wales, that figure is over 11,300 and almost half of that occurred after the Omicron variant showed up there last November.
There have been over 1,700 reinfections in South Australia and over 220 in the Northern Territory.
The ACT has recorded more than 670 reinfections — and 70 percent of those had both infections since Omicron’s arrival.
There have been 112 in Western Australia, the last state to reopen to Australia and the world.
Tasmania has only just started tracking reinfections and has no valid data yet.
Queensland does not collect information on reinfection.
Expat Fenella O’Brien is one of those who have now had multiple infections.
“The first time it was pretty rough, pretty severe mastectomy, I was out for the count,” she said.
“When I got it for the second time, I thought it would be fine.
“But it got a lot worse in the end.
“I couldn’t really get out of bed for so long after that. I really struggled to get my energy back and was just such a long fatigue after that.”
Why don’t politicians talk about COVID-19?
For some people, those symptoms can last for a long time. Not much is known about long-term COVID, but researchers are trying to change that.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), there are now 47 Australians who have lost their lives to prolonged COVID.
For them, the infection led to serious and lasting complications — often lung diseases such as chronic pneumonia.
Virus has ‘tricks up its sleeve’
Some countries, such as Denmark, have dropped testing requirements, while others are testing much less, meaning fewer COVID-19 infections are being recorded.
However, for many countries that still record data, reinfections are on the rise.
Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, was one of the researchers who first identified the Omicron variant.
“Omicron is very good at getting through pre-existing immunity,” he told ABC.
“In South Africa, we are at the end of a wave of Omicron sublines BA.4 and BA.5, reinfecting many people previously infected with the original [strain]†
Both sublines are also present in Australia.
The good news, he said, was that the disease appears to be milder for most.
Professor Sigal recently conducted research on samples from patients previously infected with the original Omicron strain.
Although the sample size is small and the study has yet to be peer-reviewed, it found that the antibodies from the original Omicron BA.1 infection were not very good at dealing with the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.
“These two sublines have evolved some mutations that allow them to escape the native Omicron immunity,” said Professor Sigal.
He said there was good immunity in the population due to vaccines and breakthrough infections, and he was encouraged by the fact that most of those infected made a full recovery and experienced milder illness. He said vaccines work well to prevent people from getting seriously ill.
But he had one big concern.
“It has tricks up its sleeve.”
Omicron ‘continues to surprise’
In Sydney, researcher Stuart Turville, a virologist at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, and his team are learning more about immunity, especially for those most at risk for the virus.
He said the antibodies seemed to decay much earlier in people who had only mild disease.
†[You’d think] ‘Well, that’s a good thing,’ said Dr Turville.
“But [what’s] links in terms of the antibodies? There isn’t much there and they will diminish over time.”
Like Professor Sigal, he believed that nothing could be assumed or taken for granted in this pandemic.
“It has changed the way it gets into our bodies and enters cells [and] it continues to amaze us.
“This thing is changing so fast. In the next six months we might not be talking about Omicron, maybe we’re talking about the next letter in the Greek alphabet.”