Aussies urged to mask up as virus cases rise

SYDNEY • Australia’s most populous state of New South Wales (NSW) reported eight new Covid-19 cases yesterday, while neighbouring Victoria’s tally increased by three, as new measures to combat the disease kicked in.

The NSW outbreak started around mid-December in Sydney’s Northern Beaches area, where a quarter of a million people are in strict lockdown until Jan 9. Cases associated with the cluster now total 148.

A smaller cluster in the west of the city, linked to a different genome sequence, has 13 confirmed cases. But the state’s chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said the authorities are worried as recent transmission at a liquor store occurred with “fleeting” exposure. “We know these transmission events have happened through very minimal exposure. We are asking members of the community who did purchase alcohol or enter that premises for that period to be very vigilant.”

NSW has made wearing masks mandatory at indoor venues like gaming rooms, hair salons and shops as the authorities try to limit the spread of the disease. They will be legally enforced from midnight local time. Anyone found not wearing masks in indoor venues such as shops, churches and on public transport will be fined A$200 (S$206).

Australia has avoided the worst of the pandemic following swift action by the authorities to shut borders, enforce lockdowns, and carry out widespread testing and social distancing.

Since the pandemic began, it has reported more than 28,450 Covid-19 cases and 909 deaths.

Despite the outbreak in Sydney, a scheduled five-day cricket match between Australia and India, starting on Thursday, will go ahead, although with a reduced number of spectators. Five Indian players have been placed in isolation while the Australian and Indian cricket boards investigate allegations of a breach of biosecurity protocols.

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In Victoria, where all cases are linked to the same Melbourne restaurant, officials are investigating how the disease spread from the source in NSW, authorities said.

Victoria has more than 30 active cases and has made masks mandatory across the state, restricted the number of people who can meet socially and shut its border with NSW on Saturday. The health authorities have identified 220 “close contacts” and more than 50 “exposure sites” linked to positive cases.

But “what is important is that they are in quarantine when they are diagnosed so that the risk of onward transmission is reduced”, Victoria’s deputy chief health officer said in Melbourne.

More than 18,900 people in New South Wales were tested on Saturday. Acting Premier John Barilaro yesterday urged more to get tested.

Victoria’s virus response commander also urged residents in his state to maintain testing levels, particularly if they had returned from NSW after the border was closed.



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