Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state, will go into a COVID-19 lockdown for one week, ordering its almost seven million citizens to stay at home except for essential business as officials battle a highly infectious epidemic.
“We’re dealing with a highly contagious strain of the virus, a variety of concern,” Victoria state Acting Premier James Merlino told reporters in Melbourne.
“Unless something spectacular happens, this is going to get out of hand.”
Merlino said contact tracers have identified more than 10,000 primary and secondary contacts who would need to quarantine, test and self isolate, adding “that number will continue to grow and change”.
The fresh cluster of infections in Melbourne detected early this week swelled to 26 on Thursday after 12 new cases overnight, while the number of virus-exposed sites rose above 150.
Victoria state Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said he “absolutely expects” more positive cases to emerge in the coming days as the variant, first detected in India, was likely to be more virulent than the original strains.
The current strain can take one day to infect another person compared with earlier strains which can take about five or six days, Merlino said.
Under the lockdown, from 11:59 pm local time (1359 GMT) on Thursday until June 3, people will only be allowed to leave their homes for essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping, exercise or to get a coronavirus vaccination.
Several infected contacts have visited crowded hot spots that included sports stadiums and one of the largest shopping centres in the country, raising concerns of a significant outbreak days ahead of the winter season.
Other states and territories have responded to the lockdown by placing tougher border rules for travelers from Victoria.
The states of Western Australia and Tasmania on Thursday closed their borders to Victorian residents following South Australia’s move a day earlier. The Northern Territory and Queensland state will ask travelers to undergo a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine.
The state of New South Wales, which shares a border with Victoria, has asked residents to postpone non-essential travel to Melbourne.
The shutdown comes only days after officials in Melbourne reintroduced coronavirus restrictions, limiting crowd sizes and requiring masks in restaurants, hotels, and other indoor venues until June 4.
Officials have linked the newest outbreak, the state’s first in more than three months, to an overseas traveler infected with a variation initially discovered in India, though the virus’s mode of transmission is still unknown.
After complete his quarantine in neighboring South Australia, the anonymous Victoria man flew to Melbourne this month, only to test positive six days later.
Last year, Victoria was subjected to one of the world’s toughest and longest lockdowns to combat a second wave of COVID-19, which claimed the lives of over 800 people in the state, accounting for 90 percent of Australia’s total deaths since the pandemic began.
With little over 30,000 cases and 910 deaths, Australia’s COVID-19 numbers have remained reasonably low thanks to quick contact tracing, snap lockdowns, and rigorous social distance restrictions.