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Brisbane, Australia (CNN) — Summer in Australia is traditionally a time for beaches and barbecues, but it’s turned into a hot mess this year with a surge in Covid-19 cases and a national shortage of rapid antigen tests.

Last week, worker absences due to isolation and illness became so severe that the national cabinet considered lowering the age limit for forklift licenses so that minors could help facilitate supply chains.

The ministers ultimately decided not to go ahead with the plan. But the idea that Australia, a country once lauded for its response to Covid-19, was considering such a move seemed to show how far the country’s leaders were fighting back.

After spending much of the pandemic isolated from the world, Australia is now trying to navigate a new approach to living with covid-19. But that change coincided with the appearance of the omicron variant, which has seen the number of cases increase.

The battle against covid-19 in Australia and New Zealand 1:55

Most of Australia’s 1.5 million Covid infections have occurred in the past three weeks, with the country reporting a record total of 88 deaths in a single day on Friday.

The surge has exacerbated Australia’s worker shortage: Earlier this month, the government estimated absenteeism could reach 10% at any given time.

On a global scale, the death toll from the pandemic in Australia, which amounts to about 3,000, remains relatively low, largely thanks to the government’s quick move to close its borders, impose long lockdowns and promote vaccination.

But while the new course is not causing a health disaster on the scale seen elsewhere, it is causing widespread upheaval in a country that once prided itself on being a covid example.

The appearance of the omicron variant

From the government’s perspective, the omicron variant changed everything.

“Ómicron has been one of the largest [sorpresas] calling into question the way we had managed the pandemic up to that point,” Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said on Thursday.

The government’s roadmap for living with covid was based on the less infectious delta variant that caused chaos in other countries last year. According to Morrison, the old plan was the reason the government did not order more rapid antigen tests, a key pain point at this stage of the pandemic as more people fall ill.

Better known as RATs, home tests provide results in minutes, but are nearly impossible to find in Australia.

Critics say the government should have been able to predict the coming crisis. The UK has been distributing free tests since last April, and the US suffered from severe testing shortages long before cases spiked in Australia.

“I understand that shortage of rapid antigen tests has been a huge frustration,” Morrison said Wednesday. “But many of these comments are made in hindsight, not anticipation.”

Demand for these devices skyrocketed as queues for traditional PCR tests, performed by pathology labs, lengthened as the number of people with Covid symptoms increased.

Some people want them to show that they are covid-free to go to work. Others need them to visit their vulnerable relatives in hospitals and nursing homes. Without them, many people stay home, not knowing if they are contagious or not.

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia, a body representing 5,700 community pharmacies, said its members are responding to four calls a minute from people desperate for tests. “This is simply unsustainable,” union president Chris Freeman said in a statement Thursday.

What are the countries with the most infected with covid-19? 0:50

RATs are so rare that the Australian Federal Police are threatening jail terms and fines to those caught selling them for more than 20% of the retail price. Transactions are made through Facebook and some pharmacies post daily updates on their RAT stock.

Before the turn of the year, the developer of software Matt Hayward became aware of the problem and on January 3 launched Find a RAT, a crowdsourced website where people could report sightings of the elusive evidence.

Within a week, the site was receiving half a million hits a day. According to Hayward, co-founder of the agency software Melbourne-based Pipelab, at the height of the campaign, testing was available at just 10 locations in Australia.

“They were gone in about 30 minutes,” he said. According to the website, supply problems have since subsided: RATs are available at fewer than 200 locations across the country, a number that changes as they arrive and stocks run out.

The government says more stock is on the way. Free testing is now available at state clinics, but only for people who are symptomatic or who are considered a close contact, defined as someone who lives with or has been with an infected person in a close environment for more than four years. hours. Starting this Monday, the tests will be distributed free of charge through pharmacies to credit card holders, including pensioners.

However, when asked on Sunday how such tests would be distributed in Queensland, Chris Owen, president of the state branch of the Guild of Pharmacies, said: “It’s a moot point at the moment. Obviously there’s no stock available. They’re so rare as the teeth of a hen”.

Worker shortages strain Australia’s supply chains

It’s not just RATs that are in short supply: worker absences due to illness and isolation have major supermarkets scrambling to keep stores stocked with common products. This is partly due to the rapid spread of covid, but also because close contacts of positive cases must self-isolate for seven days. In an attempt to keep the country moving, essential workers are now exempt from that rule as long as they test negative, but some industries remain in dire shortage.

Processed chicken, in particular, has become a rare commodity, as workers call in sick with Covid at every point in the supply chain. A spokeswoman for the Australian Chicken Meat Federation told CNN that up to 50% of staff are furloughed at some processing facilities. The remaining workers are focused on distributing whole chickens, rather than spending their time cutting them up to sell as wings, thighs and fillets, he told CNN.

“It’s very difficult to judge who is going to call in sick, so planning is pretty much impossible at the moment,” he said. “There are still people getting Covid-19, so it really is a day-to-day that doesn’t look like it’s going to subside for the next couple of weeks.”

There is room for optimism. Health authorities say the number of cases in Australia should peak in the next two weeks. Falling hospitalization rates in NSW suggest the state may be over the worst, though some warn it’s too early to tell.

Next week, when students in the two worst affected states – New South Wales and Victoria – go back to school, it will be a new challenge.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Sunday that all children and teachers will be required to take two RATs when classes resume on Friday. Victoria is taking a similar approach, but only “strongly recommends” two weekly tests.

In both states, the tests will be provided by the government, which will ease the pressure on pharmacies. And masks will be mandatory for teachers and most children ages 8 and up.

Other measures against the virus are being employed, such as air purifiers and outdoor classes when possible in the summer heat.

Last week, the NSW Teachers’ Federation warned that schools may need to close if coronavirus cases rise. But both states say that won’t happen.

In any case, Australia’s long covid summer isn’t over yet, and for Western Australia, which reported 24 locally transmitted cases this Sunday, despite keeping borders closed, it may only have begun.

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