CANBERRA, Australia – Australia was struggling to contain multiple clusters of Covid-19 across the country on Monday in what some experts have described as the most dangerous phase of the country’s pandemic since early days.
Sydney to the east and Darwin to the north were locked down on Monday. Perth, in the west, made masks mandatory for three days and warned that a lockdown could follow after a resident tested positive after visiting Sydney more than a week ago.
Brisbane and Canberra have made or will soon make the wearing of masks compulsory. The state of South Australia announced new statewide restrictions starting Tuesday.
Australia has been relatively successful in containing the clusters throughout the pandemic, recording less than 31,000 cases since the start of the pandemic. But the new groups have highlighted the slow rollout of the vaccine in the country, with only 5% of the population fully vaccinated.
Most of the new cases come from a Sydney limousine driver who tested positive on June 16 for the delta variant, which is believed to be more contagious. He has not been vaccinated, is reportedly not wearing a mask and is believed to have been infected while transporting a foreign air crew from Sydney Airport.
The state of New South Wales reported 18 new cases on Monday in the last 24-hour period. The tally was less than 30 cases recorded on Sunday and 29 on Saturday.
Authorities have warned that a two-week Sydney lockdown that began on Friday would not reduce infection rates for five days.
“We have to be ready for the numbers to bounce back and we also have to be ready for the numbers to go up dramatically,” New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
Health policy adviser Bill Bowtell, who was the architect of Australia’s first AIDS response in the 1980s, said the government should consider speeding up vaccinations by reducing the interval between AstraZeneca injections from 12 to 8 weeks.
“We are truly facing the most severe crisis of the Covid pandemic since the early days in February-March last year,” Bowtell said.
The crisis has also highlighted the dangers posed by hotel quarantine, which is at the root of most cases of the spread of the community virus in Australia.
A miner is believed to have been infected with the delta variant while in quarantine at a hotel in Brisbane, Queensland, before flying to a gold mine in the Northern Territory.
The miner infected at least six people at the mine. One of the infected miners had since returned home to Queensland and another to New South Wales.
Authorities were trying to track down 900 minors across the country who could have been infected with the initial case.
The capital of the Northern Territory, Darwin, and the nearby town of Palmerston, were closed for 48 hours on Sunday after an infected minor returned home in Palmerston.
The lockdown would be extended until Friday after another miner tested positive after returning home to Darwin on Friday, officials said on Monday. The Northern Territory has never experienced the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
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Queensland reported three new cases on Monday, including the minor. She is one of 170 potentially infected minors who live in the state and travel to a workplace.
Masks will become mandatory from Tuesday for two weeks in Brisbane and several surrounding cities.
“The next 24 to 48 hours are going to be very crucial in Queensland as to whether or not we see a spread of this delta strain,” Queensland Prime Minister Annastacia Palaszczu said.
The Queensland government has called on the federal government to tighten already tight border restrictions to reduce the number of travelers arriving in Australia.
The state of Western Australia has reported a new case in Perth linked to the Sydney cluster. The state is home to 177 of the potentially infected minors.