SYDNEY, Dec 27 (Reuters) – Australia on Monday reported its first confirmed death from the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 amid another surge in daily infections, but the authorities refrained from imposing new restrictions saying hospitalisation rates remained low.
The death, a man in his 80s with underlying health conditions, marked a grim milestone for the country which has had to pause some parts of a staged reopening after nearly two years of stop-start lockdowns, due to the fresh outbreak.
Omicron, which health experts say appears more contagious but less virulent than previous strains, began to spread in the country just as it lifted restrictions on most domestic borders and allowed Australians to return from overseas without quarantine, driving case numbers to the highest of the pandemic.
The authorities gave no additional details about the Omicron death, except to say that the man caught the virus at an aged care facility and died in a Sydney hospital.
“This was the first known death in New South Wales (state) linked to the Omicron variant of concern,” said NSW Health epidemiologist Christine Selvey in a video released by the government.
The man was among six COVID-19 deaths reported in Australia the previous day, all in the most populous states of NSW and Victoria, which are home to more than half the country’s 25 million population.
NSW, Victoria and Queensland states reported a combined 9,107 new cases on Monday, putting the country on track for another peak in new infections. The five other states and territories were yet to report daily case numbers.
“Although we are seeing increased case numbers… we are not seeing the impacts on our hospital system,” said Annastacia Palaszczuk, premier of Queensland which reported 784 new cases with four people in hospital.
With reports of six-hour wait times for COVID testing for people hoping to meet requirements for interstate holiday travel, Palaszczuk defended the tourism-friendly state for mandatory testing, saying “everyone knew when they booked a ticket that if they wanted to come here they would have to do a PCR test”.
“We need to make sure that we’re protecting (Queenslanders),” she said.
Australian authorities have so far resisted a return to lockdown in the face of surging case numbers but have reinstated some restrictions. On Monday, NSW again made it compulsory to check into public venues with QR codes, while many states have brought back mandatory mask-wearing in indoor public places.
Photo – A traffic control manager stands in front of a sign reading ‘Testing site at capacity’ at a temporarily closed Drive Through COVID-19 testing site after reaching capacity, in the suburb of Mitchell in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Australia. EPA-EFE/LUKAS COCH