At least 18 Covid cases have been linked to ‘freedom’ protests throughout Melbourne earlier this month – raising fears the events could have spread Omicron through the city.
Ten men and eight women have tested positive to the virus after marching through the streets with up to 20,000 other ‘freedom fighters’ on November 13 and 20.
While the first cases of Omicron weren’t recorded until Saturday, there are fears the milder variant of Covid could have been circulating in Australia much earlier.
Public health officials believe nine of the cases were already infectious when they attended the rally – exposing other attendees to the virus.
Seven others likely acquired their infections while marching, The Age reported.
One of the demonstrators was taken to hospital for Covid treatment, but does not require intensive care. It’s understood that patient is not vaccinated.
Crowds gathered on Melbourne’s state parliament steps against Covid vaccine mandates and the Andrews government’s controversial pandemic bill on three consecutive weekends
The new Covid variant – Omicron – has already spread to 14 nations after it was identified just three weeks ago
There are now concerns Covid is spreading undetected throughout attendees at the protests – some of whom mightn’t believe the virus exists or will refuse to be tested
Just one of the 18 protesters was fully vaccinated, while two had received their first dose.
There are now concerns Covid is spreading undetected throughout attendees at the protests – some of whom mightn’t believe the virus exists or will refuse to be tested.
A spokesman for the Victorian Health Department urged anyone who attended the protests to be on alert for symptoms and to ‘get tested if they develop even the mildest of symptoms’.
Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said it was likely there are more cases linked to the protests that health authorities have not yet identified.
She said gathering at a ‘freedom’ protest could carry a higher risk of infection given many attendees likely are not vaccinated and do not believe in the threat of Covid.
Woman seen holding a sign referring to the chances of contracting the virus
‘Protests are not illegal events, but people might still be reluctant, even if they do get tested, because they’ve got symptoms, to say they were at the protest,’ she said.
‘It might be that there’s also going to be a group of people less likely to test, particularly if they have only mild symptoms.
‘And if people are calling out and cheering, you just add to that possibility… They only have to stay there for a minute.’
Police estimated about 20,000 people attended the most recent rally on Saturday, marching through the CBD against vaccine mandates and legislation introduced to stem the spread of the virus.
Protesters blocked Spring Street in the state’s CBD brandishing banners and beating drums as they marched toward Bourke Street chanting ‘sack Dan Andrews’
Flags of countries were also seen at the protests which included flags from Greece, Lebanon and North Macedonia
Further protests have already been planned for this coming weekend.
The revelation comes as Victoria recorded 1,007 new Covid cases overnight and the rest of the nation waits with baited breath to learn more about the new Omicron variant.
The Victorian health department announced another three deaths on Monday and confirmed the state is now managing 11,501 active Covid-19 cases.
There has not yet been any confirmed cases of Omicron in Victoria.
At least three new cases of the Omicron variant – which was first reported in Botswana on November 9 – have been confirmed in Australia with one more suspected case.
The first two cases were recorded in returned travellers to Sydney, while a third case was detected on Monday afternoon in the Northern Territory.
Signs seen in the crowds outside Flinders Street Station in Melbourne’s CBD
Epidemiologist Nancy Baxter, who is the head of Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at University of Melbourne, said ‘there’s reason to be concerned but no reason to panic’ about the new variant.
Australia has temporarily introduced a hard border with nine countries in southern Africa – the source of the new strain – and state and federal leaders are on high alert, with three cases already detected in returned travellers and a fourth under investigation.
Experts say information on the new variant is sketchy and given how fresh its emergence is, it’s too early to determine exactly how rapidly it might spread or how potent it might be.
Anecdotal evidence from medics in southern Africa suggests Omicron is more contagious than the now common Delta strain but symptoms are milder, particularly in the vaccinated population.
The World Health Organisation indicated Omicron may pose a greater risk of ‘reinfection’ than previous variants – meaning even those who have already been infected with and recovered from Covid could be at risk again.
To read more about Omicron and the key questions epidemiologists have already answered, click here.