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Australia Australia struggles under Delta load as new COVID lockdowns mean majority of Australia at home again

23:27  07 august  2021
23:27  07 august  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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In the coronavirus world, everything can change in the blink of an eye — or in the space of a two-hour flight.

This was certainly the case just over a week ago when Melbourne AFL club boarded a plane to the Gold Coast only to be told mid-flight that a growing Delta outbreak in Queenland's south-east meant their afternoon game wouldn't go ahead.

While AFL organisers scrambled to contain the ensuing chaos — moving games back to Melbourne, which had itself only recently exited lockdown — captain Max Gawn posted a photo of his sleeping teammate Tom McDonald. "Slept the whole way, should I tell him?" he quipped.

That you can doze off and wake up to find another city in lockdown is an apt summary of Australia's COVID-19 situation this week.

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With the highly transmissible Delta variant snaking its way up and down the east coast, "go hard, go early" has become the nationwide approach.

Over the past seven days, snap lockdowns were enforced across the Armidale, Hunter and Upper Hunter regions in NSW, the whole of Victoria, and south-east Queensland.

Meanwhile, Sydneysiders slogged through their sixth week of restrictions, with no end in sight, and even Tasmania had a scare from a positive interstate traveller.

The new cases sparked a national game of musical lockdowns, with new restrictions being imposed just weeks after old ones were lifted.

By the end of the working week, the majority of Australia was back scheduling Zoom catch-ups, their only respite from home an outdoor exercise session or grocery run.

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Queensland back in the hot seat

For the sunshine state, the familiar story began last Saturday when health authorities announced that six new locally transmitted cases had been confirmed in the past 24 hours. All were linked to a 17-year-old Brisbane high school student who had tested positive the previous Thursday.

The same day, a three-day lockdown was introduced for 11 local government areas in the south-east. "It is our intention that this is a short lockdown and that we can deal with this outbreak within days," Deputy Premier Steven Miles said at the time.

But by Wednesday — four days into the lockdown, and almost a week after the first case was detected — the cluster had grown to 63 cases.

"In less than a week, this has become our biggest outbreak since the first wave last year," Miles warned, foreshadowing a possible second extension of restrictions.

Days earlier Brisbane's Ekka agricultural show was cancelled for the second year in a row, leaving producers devastated. The event is so massive it has its own public holiday, which was also postponed to an undetermined date in high-risk council areas.

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By the end of the week nearly all new cases were close contacts of known infections who were already quarantining when they tested positive, leaving health authorities hopeful restrictions could soon lift.

"We need to keep it up," Miles said on Saturday. "If we do, that is what will give us the best possible chance of starting to get closer to what is normal as soon as possible.

Sydney outbreak spreads to the regions

As daily case numbers took off in Queensland, they hit record numbers in NSW.

Health authorities are still struggling to bring down the number of people out in the community while infectious; the number they say needs to be close to zero for restrictions to ease.

While testing numbers were consistently high — often topping 100,000 a day — so too were the case numbers.

Among them were a smattering of positive tests in the Hunter and Upper Hunter, north of Sydney, and Armidale, in NSW's Northern Tablelands, leading to two separate seven-day "snap" lockdowns.

Amid growing frustration from the public, Premier Gladys Berejiklian tried to spin the plateauing numbers as a good thing: health authorities hadn't failed to bring case numbers down, she said, they had succeeded at keeping a highly-infectious outbreak at bay.

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"The fact that we're only at a couple of hundred a day, in itself which is serious, demonstrates how much work we have taken to keep the virus at bay," she said, "remember that Melbourne got up to 700, 800 cases a day without the Delta strain."

Asked why case numbers were refusing to budge in Sydney, Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant put it simply: "The numbers are going up because we have a number of people infectious in the community. The numbers are going up because we are still having mixing with households."

This became painfully apparent on Saturday when health authorities announced there had been 319 locally acquired cases detected in the latest reporting period — the highest single-day tally ever recorded in NSW.

On the same day another five COVID-19 deaths were reported, equalling the grim milestone of most deaths in a 24 hour period set earlier in the week.

Included in the quickly growing death toll was 27-year-old Aude Alaskar, whose death at his south-west Sydney unit delivered a powerful reminder of Delta's danger.

Described by family as fit and healthy, the forklift driver and soccer player had no underlying conditions and had only displayed mild COVID-19 symptoms until day 13 of his illness when he deteriorated quickly.

He had also not been vaccinated, like many other young Sydney residents who have only recently been encouraged to get AstraZeneca with their doctor's permission, as the wait for widespread Pfizer availability continues.

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This is despite a vaccination push from Berejiklian, who has repeatedly stressed having 60 per cent of the population jabbed would be a major determining factor in whether Greater Sydney can open up at the end of the month.

Following Mr Alaskar's death, Sydney GP Jamal Rifi issued a call to arms: "For anyone who is hesitant, right now is the right time to get vaccinated, protection for themselves, protection for their loved ones, there is no excuse anymore."

From donuts to lockdown in a day

In another blink and you'll miss it moment, Victorians went from celebrating a so-called "donut day" of zero community transmission to their sixth lockdown in the space of a day.

It was looking positive for the state on Wednesday — which had their fifth lockdown just a week earlier — as authorities announced there had been no new cases of community transmission for the first time since July 11, when a COVID-19 leak from NSW kicked off a 200 person outbreak.

The mood was summed up by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, who shared the daily case tally alongside a screenshot of Ariane Titmus' coach's now-iconic reaction to her 400m freestyle win.

Most of the restrictions imposed during the fifth lockdown, which lasted 12 days, had been lifted the previous week, cementing the quick, sharp and short lockdown as the only way to out smart Delta.

But the celebrations didn't last long. Within hours of Wednesday's media conference, a teacher from Melbourne's west had tested positive to the virus. By the end of the day, six cases had been reported.

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The following morning talk of another lockdown was in the air, as it emerged three of the new infections were mystery cases.

Then came the now-familiar afternoon media conference.

"I can't tell you how disappointed I am to have to be here doing this again," Premier Daniel Andrews said, as he announced another seven-day, state-wide lockdown. "There are no alternatives."

But hundreds of anti-lockdown protesters were not convinced, converging on Melbourne's CBD an hour before the stay-at-home orders came into effect. Shouting "freedom" and "no more lockdowns", the demonstrators lit flares and clashed with police, resulting in a number of fines being issued and two arrests.

On Friday state Health Minister Martin Foley said the state was back in a "precarious position". The following morning health authorities announced 29 new locally acquired cases — the highest single-day increase in cases this year. All of the new cases were in the community while infectious.

"It is in all of our hands to continue to work together, to work with our public health teams to get on top of and ahead of this particular outbreak," he said.

"We have driven down this Delta variant and we can do it again."

All eyes on the rollout

With more than 15 million people in lockdown, the eternal questions are: how is the vaccine rollout going, where do we need to be for lockdowns to end, and what do we need to do to get there?

The public was provided with some answers to these questions this week, with the release of detailed geographic data on where vaccine doses had been administered and the Doherty Institute modelling that informed the Federal Government's four-phase pathway out of the pandemic.

The geographic data was the clearest picture yet of how the rollout is going and it showed not all regions were equal when it came to the number of jabs in arms.

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Most tellingly, it showed Sydney's south-west had the lowest rates of vaccination in the state — 33 per cent of residents have had at least one dose, and 14 per cent were full vaccinated — despite being at the centre of the current Delta outbreak.

By comparison, across the harbour in North Sydney and Hornsby more than 50 per cent of residents had received their first dose and 27 per cent were fully vaccinated.

The data did not, however, include the average age of a region, which impacts vaccine eligibility. The south-west is one of the youngest parts of Sydney.

Regardless of location, Australia is still a long way from where we need to be to move into the next phase of the pathway out of the pandemic.

According to the Doherty Institute modelling, 70 per cent of people over 16 should be vaccinated before "stringent" lockdowns could be scrapped in favour of less-onerous restrictions. They believe this could happen by the beginning of November.

Currently, more than 13,000 million doses have been administered across the country; 32 per cent of the 40 million doses needed to fully vaccinate Australia's adult population.

But it's not all doom and gloom. The number of doses being given out across the country per day hit a new record on Friday, with 240,000 doses administered in a 24 hour period.

"The national vaccination program in Australia has certainly turned a corner," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday. "This is what is needed to get the job done."

The opposition, however, was not convinced. Earlier in the week, Labor had posed a controversial idea to get people on board: pay them to get the jab.

Their proposal suggested a one-time $300 payment for anyone who comes forward for vaccination in a bid to chip away at vaccine hesitancy and, according to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, provide a "much-needed shot in the arm for businesses and workers struggling".

The idea was a hit among those who have been vaccinated and wouldn't mind some extra lockdown cash, but was scoffed at by the government who said it was unnecessary, expensive, and ineffectual.

Morrison took it a step further and labelled the idea an "insult" and a "vote of no confidence in Australians".

"Those 80 per cent of older Australians who have turned up and rolled up their sleeves, they didn't need the cash," he said. "They just needed to know that it was good for them, it was good for their family, it was good for their community and it was good for their country."

As more doses arrive on Australian shores and vaccination hubs and pharmacies gear up to deliver them, only time will tell if the message alone is enough.

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Australia's COVID crisis reaches a new level as the virus puts all of NSW into lockdown .
After Gladys Berejiklian announced 466 new case numbers yesterday, no-one needed to ask why she followed up by announcing tightened lockdown limits. But other questions soon followed.A five-kilometre curb on travel from home, permits needed for any essential travel outside the Sydney region, registering a singles bubble partner for residents of local government areas of concern, and significantly increased penalties for violating the rules laid out the new state of play.

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