“We are devastated and fearful. We have coped so far by keeping him off daycare and his older sister [aged six] off school,” said Mr Lh, who lives in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah.
“It’s taken a massive toll on our family. My wife and I spend many nights crying after the kids have gone to sleep,” he said.
The past two years have been hard for Mr Lh and his family – and with a recent narrowing to the definition of ‘close contact’, their fears and worries have gone from bad to worse.
According to the new definition adopted by most states, a close contact is now considered to be a person who is a household contact who has spent four or more hours with a confirmed COVID-19 case, except in exceptional circumstances.
“We literally don’t know how to move forward. We were hoping that with the decline in cases, pre-Omicron, that our daughter Grace might be able to return to school. But the changes to the close contact definition make it impossible to assess risk,” Mr Lh said.
Mr Lh and his family’s situation is not unique.
Hundreds of thousands of immunocompromised Australians have not been able to live freely since the start of the pandemic – even when there were no lockdowns or restrictions.
Sydneysider Jennifer Kivikko hasn’t left her home for 21 months, with the exception of a handful of visits to see her specialist.
The 60-year-old, who lives with a string of autoimmune illnesses, got infected with COVID-19 in March 2020 and hasn’t really recovered yet.
Brian Lynch, who’s recovering from prostate cancer, can’t remember the last time he went outside his house without worrying about contracting the virus.
“I have [had] to basically go into self-isolation,” the 68-year-old from Melbourne’s Ashburton said.
Jaclyn Collier, a 41-year-old living in Melbourne’s Elwood who was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2019, is petrified of being indoors with people she doesn’t know.
“Because of my health conditions, I have to go into sensitive areas with other vulnerable people. I don’t want to get them sick,” she said.
The new definition of a close contact has left them all shocked.
“I find it astounding. I find it maddening. I really feel quite angry about it. Not just for myself but for all the other vulnerable, immunocompromised, elderly, Indigenous [and] low-income people, who are at a disadvantage already,” Ms Kivikko said.
Australia is currently smashing records for COVID-19 cases, recording more than 32,000 infections on New Year’s Eve.
In fact, since the last peak in October, the rate of new COVID-19 infections in the country has gone up by 446 per cent, according to data published by The New York Times.
The Times data indicates Australia has the highest increase in the rate of new cases in the world at the moment, followed by Denmark at 239 per cent.
In October, nine people per 100,000 were getting infected in Australia. In December, that number was 50 per 100,000.
“Delta was the most transmissible variant we’ve had up to this point and Omicron is several times more contagious. We already know that with Delta a fleeting contact could result in an infection. And now to say that four hours is the definition of a close contact, I feel very cynical about it,” Ms Kivikko said.
‘We need to do more’
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday it was necessary to revisit the definition of close contact to ease pressure on COVID-19 PCR testing sites.
“This should significantly, we hope, over the next few weeks, greatly reduce the volume of people who are having these PCR tests, which means we will be able to increase the turnaround time of these tests, getting results back to those who need to take them,” he told reporters on Thursday after national cabinet agreed on the changed definition.
Mr Morrison said the change will also allow healthcare workers to go back to their jobs so they can continue to treat new and existing cases.
“In addition to that, it will also free up, we hope, a lot more workforce that is currently being focused on these tests to be able to be supporting the other priorities for managing the pandemic.”
But some epidemiologists have voiced concern four hours is too long a time to allow the virus to potentially spread.
James Trauer, head of the epidemiological modelling unit at the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, said the new definition is at odds with slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re facing a huge wave and we need to do more. We need to think about strategies that can slow down that wave [but] a lot of the discussion is about doing less, like doing less testing, less contact tracing,” Dr Trauer said.
“We are essentially reducing the number of things we’re doing to respond, when we need to be increasing [them] at the moment,” he said.
Dr Trauer said the new definition has failed some of the most vulnerable people in the community – not just those who’re immunocompromised, but the elderly and those with diabetes, too.
“I do feel there’s been a lack of national leadership and the national cabinet hasn’t been able to put in place good, coordinated strategies for the whole country,” he said.
“Usually when we’ve been successful, it’s been individual states going off in their own direction and not following the direction of the national cabinet.”
Dr Trauer said the country needs to find a way to flatten the curve and he is concerned it may take a month or two before we start seeing a drop in daily numbers.
In the meantime, though, Mr Lh said he wants to see decisionmakers better consider the needs of immunocompromised people.
“Our approaches to COVID must continue to protect those who are genuinely vulnerable to its ongoing impact. At the moment, it feels they’re an inconvenience in a maddening quest to return to normality,” he said.