Australia: NSW COVID cluster's 'enormous' expansion sparks concern, but outbreak remains traced for now

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 22: Registered Nurse's Kahala Dixon and Ali Murphy dress in PPE (personal protective equipment) at the COVID-19 drive-through testing clinic at Bondi Beach on July 22, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. New South Wales recorded 16 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the state's total number of coronavirus cases to 3,425. NSW residents are being urged to avoid non-essential travel and large crowds, as health authorities work to contain several COVID-19 cluster outbreaks across the state. Cases linked to the Crossroads Hotel, Thai Rock and Batemans Bay Soldiers Club clusters have been shown to all be linked to virus strains in Victoria, where residents are currently in lockdown due to the dramatic rise in community transmissions. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images) © Getty SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 22: Registered Nurse's Kahala Dixon and Ali Murphy dress in PPE (personal protective equipment) at the COVID-19 drive-through testing clinic at Bondi Beach on July 22, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. New South Wales recorded 16 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the state's total number of coronavirus cases to 3,425. NSW residents are being urged to avoid non-essential travel and large crowds, as health authorities work to contain several COVID-19 cluster outbreaks across the state. Cases linked to the Crossroads Hotel, Thai Rock and Batemans Bay Soldiers Club clusters have been shown to all be linked to virus strains in Victoria, where residents are currently in lockdown due to the dramatic rise in community transmissions. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Experts remain optimistic a COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney's eastern suburbs is contained, despite yesterday's "enormous" rise in case numbers that saw the Bondi cluster almost double in size.

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The number of locally acquired infections in NSW yesterday swelled to 21, after 10 new cases were recorded.

Seven of those came in after the 8:00pm reporting deadline and will be officially included in today's numbers, which are set to be released at 11:00am EST.

NSW Health has been continuously adding to the list of venues visited by infected people, which are mainly around Sydney.

However, late last night, the outbreak went international when authorities revealed a confirmed case had travelled from Sydney to Wellington last Friday. 

Anyone on Qantas flight QF163 on June 18, and Air New Zealand flight NZ247 from Wellington to Sydney on June 21 is considered a close contact of the infected person and must get a COVID-19 test and isolate for 14 days.

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Eight of the 10 new cases announced yesterday in NSW were household contacts of known COVID-19 patients who were already in isolation.

While face masks have been made mandatory in several settings in Greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, and the Wollongong and Shellharbour local government areas, other social-distancing restrictions like the number of people allowed in hospitality venues, remain unchanged. 

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was confident with the state of restrictions in NSW, even though the highly-contagious Delta strain of COVID-19 was spreading in Sydney's east.

"There is no doubt an increased level of concern, given additional numbers of cases," Ms Berejiklian said.

"But as [chief health officer] Dr [Kerry] Chant said yesterday, we expected, given how absolutely contagious the virus is, we expected that household contacts already in isolation were likely to get the virus."

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Epidemiologist at the University of NSW, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, agrees.

"The number spike is enormous and it was a concern," she said.

"But to hear that they are mainly household contacts is good, because it means that they have been in isolation before they've become highly infectious to others, and this variant of concern means that you can start to become more infectious to people earlier on."

In response to the rise in numbers, NSW Health yesterday made wearing face masks mandatory for an extra week, until 12:01am EST on Thursday, July 1.

People in Greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, and the Wollongong and Shellharbour local government areas must wear face masks if they are: 

  • On public transport
  • In a retail shop
  • In an entertainment venue like a theatre
  • In the gaming area of a pub or club
  • Visiting an aged-care facility 

Masks are also mandatory for front-of-house hospitality staff, but not for patrons.

The rules do not apply to people on the Central Coast or in NSW's Hunter region. 

Premier Berejiklian said making masks mandatory was an important measure.

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"It is only when you are eating or drinking indoors at a venue that you can't or shouldn't wear a mask," Ms Berejiklian said.

"The challenge for us at this stage is to prevent any super spreading event because we know that if you are in a group of people and if one person has the virus the level of contagion is so high that we are concerned that everybody might get the virus."

A few days ago Professor McLaws said she thought a short lockdown would have been useful, but she said the situation had changed for the better since then, and was encouraged by the fact most of yesterday's new infections were household contacts of COVID-19 cases.

"That gives me at least a sense of security that there may not be that many more cases," she said.

"But I'm very pleased to hear that mask use is now mandatory ... because that is what will save us from walking into these plumes of infectious particles."

Ms Berejiklian agrees.

"If we suddenly have a number of unlinked cases, and if we suddenly have them outside the geographic region they are concentrated in, that will obviously adjust the health advice and we will respond to that," she said.

Of concern to health officials was a case announced yesterday of a Sydney primary school student with no known links to other cases.  

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The school, St Charles' Catholic Primary School in Waverley, is not far from Westfield Bondi Junction, where several infections have been recorded.

Also under investigation is a woman in her 20s who works at Bondi Junction and is believed to have contracted the virus in another instance of "fleeting contact".

Late last night NSW Health added more exposure sites to a growing list which now includes outdoor eating areas, workplaces and cafes.

Victoria has also declared the seven local government areas currently affected by the outbreak as red zones. Wollongong has been declared an orange zone.

This means that Victorian residents who have been in the City of Sydney, Waverley, Woollahra, Bayside, Canada Bay, Inner West or Randwick must obtain a red zone permit to enter the state.

Non-Victorian residents who have travelled to these areas cannot enter Victoria.

Last night, New Zealand paused quarantine-free travel with NSW residents for 72 hours from midnight in response to the latest outbreak saying that while the risk was low, there were still some unknowns.

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