Australia COVID cases surge, testing buckles

Australia's COVID-19 cases soared to a pandemic record on Tuesday (January 4).

The Omicron variant has ripped through most of the country.

Hospitalizations have risen drastically, and a once-formidable testing regime is buckling under lengthy wait times and stock shortages.

Australia used a constant testing system for a year and a half, along with contact tracing and lockdowns to squash most outbreaks.

But Tuesday's new infection numbers were up nearly a third from Monday's, which was also a record.

Political leaders have pointed to a largely successful vaccination rollout and few deaths, relative to new case numbers.

But Prime Minister Scott Morrison's fiercest political competitor, opposition leader Anthony Albanese, say it's not good enough.

"So you can't get a booster shot, even if you have an appointment. You can't get access to a PCR test because testing sites are closing and the queues go for six or eight hours. You get told to get a rapid antigen test but you can't find one. If you do find one it's not affordable and they won't do anything about price gouging. That's the record of this government."

Political leaders country-wide have been re-shaping their messaging on COVID.

After nearly two years of campaigning for widespread testing, authorities now ask asymptomatic people to bypass overburdened government-funded clinics and take their own rapid antigen tests.

But that has brought a new pressure point: an explosion in sales of home testing kits.

That's led to reports of stockpiling, empty shelves and inflated prices on the few kits which have not yet been sold.

Morrison has ruled out subsidizing the testing kits, citing a heightened role for "personal responsibility."

Though the country's competition regulator plans to investigate complaints about allegations of price gouging.

Despite the spike in infections fueled by Omicron, dual-dose vaccination levels of nearly 92% in people above 16 have helped Australia to keep the death rate lower than in previous virus outbreaks.

Around 2.5 million Australians have also received booster shots so far.

Regardless of the soaring numbers, the number of deaths in Australia are still lower than those seen in many developed countries.

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