Victorians can now get their COVID-19 booster shot sooner, with the government shortening the interval between second and third doses to three months at all state hubs.
Premier Daniel Andrews announced the change, effective immediately, on Wednesday as the state recorded 20,769 new COVID-19 cases and 18 deaths.
"The total number of people eligible increases substantially by two million Victorians and it will help us get more people third-dose boosted quicker than would otherwise be the case," he told reporters in Melbourne.
Some 60,000 additional appointments will be available as part of a four-day "booster blitz" beginning on Friday at eight of the state-run vaccination hubs.
Hours at major hubs including Bendigo, La Trobe University and Sandown have been extended specifically for the blitz, while more than 100 GPs and pharmacies across the state will receive grants to provide additional appointments at the weekend.
Mr Andrews flagged the possibility the booster would soon become mandatory for a person to be considered fully vaccinated, noting a mandate was imposed for several essential industries last week.
Professor Rhonda Stuart, an infectious disease expert who runs the Health Department's South Eastern Public Health Unit, said people who had a booster shot were less likely to have COVID-19 symptoms if infected, and less likely to be hospitalised.
Fewer than five per cent of people in ICU have received a booster shot, she said.
Prof Stuart also warned young people against deliberately catching the virus.
"We are seeing young, fit, healthy people being admitted to hospital with Omicron, we are seeing people being admitted to ICU with Omicron," she said.
"But also we are seeing people very sick in the community being bed-bound, having high fevers, shaking, chills, terrible muscle aches. I wouldn't wish that upon anybody."
Prof Stuart said natural immunity after infection waned more quickly than that provided by a booster vaccine.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said the government needed to do more to encourage booster uptake, suggesting more vaccination hubs, including at tourist locations, 24-hour sites and an advertising campaign.
Meanwhile, 20 Australian Defence Force personnel and 12 Australian Public Service workers will arrive in Victoria on Thursday to assist paramedics and triple-zero phone operators.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the extra support on Wednesday, after Mr Andrews requested assistance.
It comes as a 'code brown' declaration for Victoria's hospital system came into effect at midday on Wednesday, allowing hospitals to postpone or defer less urgent care and reassign staff.
It is the first such state-wide declaration, usually reserved for more localised emergencies, and comes as more than 4000 healthcare workers have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are isolating as close contacts.
In addition, authorities are expecting hospital admissions from the current Omicron wave to skyrocket in the coming weeks.
There are currently 1173 Victorians in hospital with COVID-19, an increase of 21 on Tuesday's figures, of which 125 are in intensive care and 42 on ventilation.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Karen Price said the code brown would likely funnel more patients to GPs and general practice teams, placing them under increasing pressure.
"GPs and general practice teams will step up once again and do all we can for our patients, but we will need a helping hand from government," Dr Price said, suggesting several federal reform commitments for the upcoming election.
Australian Associated Press
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