On Monday, the possibility of a long-term lockdown in Sydney loomed as Australian health officials announced yet another daily increase in COVID-19 infections for the year, fueled by the extremely contagious Delta form.
Despite the fact that Sydney is in its third week under lockdown, the state of New South Wales recorded 112 new locally transmitted COVID-19 cases, practically all of them in Sydney. For at least three days, the number of cases has been at an all-time high.
However, there was some good news: the number of newly infected people out in the community while infectious fell to 34 from 45 on Sunday.
State Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the progress of that figure in coming days would determine whether Sydney’s lockdown, due to end on Friday, would be extended.
“That’s the number we need to get as close to zero as possible,” Berejiklian said during her daily televised briefing. “It is really up to us. The health expert advice will be based on what those numbers look like. I can’t be clearer than that.”
Berejiklian said a majority of Monday’s cases were family members or close friends of already infected persons, and pleaded with residents to comply with lockdown rules, which were tightened over the weekend.
Total infections in the outbreak are nearing 700, less than a month since the first was detected in mid-June. Sixty-three people are in hospital, with 18 in intensive care, officials said, while a woman in her 90s became the country’s first COVID-19 fatality this year.
Lockdown measures for Sydney’s five million residents, including school closures and stay-at-home orders, have stoked concerns of a slowdown in the economy, which had returned to pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter.
Debbie Brincat has cut opening hours at the pet store she runs with her husband Andrew in the western suburb of Fairfield to just four hours a day in response to the movement restrictions.
Andrew’s Bird & Pet Palace, which the couple has operated for almost 40 years, took A$150 in sales on Sunday, compared with an average of more than A$3000 ($2,245).
Brincat told Reuters she was “very scared at the moment” and was unsure if the business would qualify for government financial support.
Australia has previously successfully suppressed COVID-19 flare-ups through snap lockdowns, speedy contact tracing and tough social distancing rules. With a total of around 31,200 cases and 911 deaths since the pandemic began, the country has fared better than many other developed economies.
The Sydney outbreak has put Australia’s sluggish vaccine rollout under the microscope. Only around 11% of Australia’s adult population of just over 20.5 million have been fully vaccinated.
Critics have pointed to confusing public advice as well as vaccine shortages.
Official federal health guidance recommends the locally-produced AstraZeneca vaccine be restricted to people aged over 60 because of blood clot concerns, while the imported Pfizer vaccine is currently limited to people below 60.
However, New South Wales officials on Monday said the state’s vaccination centers and pharmacies would be authorized to give the AstraZeneca vaccine to anyone over 40. NSW officials have also recommended shortening the interval to six weeks between AstraZeneca vaccination doses from the recommended 12 weeks.
Lieutenant General John Frewen, head of the COVID-19 vaccination taskforce, on Monday defended a newly-released advertisement showing a youthful-looking intubated woman in a hospital bed struggling to breathe and urging people to get vaccinated.
“The conditions in Sydney right now we felt warranted that commercial,” Frewen said. “It is absolutely confronting and we didn’t use it lightly.”