Australia extends Sydney lockdown as COVID-19 outbreak nears 900 infections

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SYDNEY, July 14 (Reuters) – Australian authorities extended a lockdown in Sydney on Wednesday by at least 14 days, after three weeks of initial restrictions failed to stamp out the biggest outbreak of COVID-19 this year in the country’s largest city.

New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said restrictions would need to remain in place until at least July 30 after she reported 97 new locally transmitted cases, a slight increase from a day earlier.

“It always hurts to say this, but we need to extend the lockdown at least a further two weeks,” Berejiklian said in Sydney on Wednesday.

“We want to get out of this lockdown as soon as we can and that is why we have the settings in place that we have.”

The shutdown has now been extended on two occasions and total infections since the first was initially detected in the city’s eastern suburbs in mid-June now stand at just under 900. Two deaths have been reported, the first for the country this year.

Berejiklian has repeatedly said that the lockdown, in place since June 26, will only be lifted when the number of newly reported cases that were circulating in the community while infectious were close to zero.

Of the 97 new cases, 24 people were infectious in the community, meaning authorities expect more cases of highly contagious Delta variant to come to light in the coming days.

The harbour city of 5 million residents was plunged into an initial two-week lockdown in late June.

Many non-essential businesses are closed, and most school students are staying home, with residents only allowed outside their homes for essential activities and some exercise.

Neighbouring Victoria state, which spent nearly a third of 2020 under lockdown as the centre of Australia’s first wave of COVID-19 cases, meanwhile reported its biggest daily case increase in weeks, all linked to a team of removalists who carried the virus interstate from Sydney.

Among the seven new cases in the state, one person attended a football match at Melbourne Cricket Ground while contagious, making the country’s biggest sports stadium a designated exposure site, the authorities said.

Hundreds of people in the state had been ordered into isolation and an apartment block visited by the removalists was locked down. Investigators were checking for clues of possible contacts, but there was no indication of plans for wider movement restrictions.

“Collectively, as the Victorian community, I’m confident we can get on top of it but if we have to bring additional weapons … we’ll do that,” said the state’s COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar. “The next two or three days are going to be absolutely critical.”

HOSPITALISATIONS GROW

In New South Wales, there are now 71 COVID-19 patients in hospital as a result of the Sydney outbreak, with 20 people in intensive care units (ICU), including one person aged in their 20s and two in their 30s.

The virus appears to have spread to parts of Sydney previously unaffected, and to regional areas, with a case detected in Goulburn, about 200 km (125 miles) south-west of Sydney.

The outbreak has started to pressure health services, with queues for COVID-19 tests in Fairfield, in Sydney’s south-west, stretching for kilometres overnight due to new health orders requiring people who leave the suburb for work to be tested regularly.

Snap lockdowns, speedy contact tracing and tough social distancing rules have otherwise helped Australia keep COVID-19 numbers lower than many other developed countries, with just over 31,300 cases and 912 deaths.

A sluggish vaccination programme has meant that less than 10% of the population has received two vaccine doses.

In New South Wales, health workers have administered just over 2.7 million vaccine doses, authorities said on Wednesday.Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Byron Kaye; editing by Lincoln Feast.

Reuters