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What we know today, Wednesday February 17

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Today’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad.

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SA  to begin COVID vaccinations next week

COVID-19 frontline workers in South Australia will start being vaccinated against the virus as early as Monday, with the first load of vials set to be delivered to the state this weekend.

Under the first phase of the rollout, 1726 frontline healthcare workers will be vaccinated.

All up, the first phase will vaccinate more than 12,000 people in the first three weeks, including medi-hotel and airport workers and those linked to residential disability and aged care.

Vaccinations under the first phase will be conducted at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre.

The second phase includes people aged over 70 and those deemed vulnerable.

SA Health will receive at least 4000 vials of the vaccine by Monday.

Premier Steven Marshall said he was “satisfied” that South Australia would receive enough vials from the Federal Government, despite the state receiving just 2.8 per cent of Australia’s total first batch.

“We’re working with them (the Federal Government) on a very good basis,” he said.

“This is the largest logistical exercise – peacetime exercise – in the history of Australia, but because of all the planning work that we’ve done, we expect this to roll-out very, very smoothly.”

The state’s first vaccine fridges arrived for installation at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre today.

The freezers, which cost almost $30,000, are large enough to store 28,000 vials, which will vaccine more than 100,000 people.

Marshall said the first stage of the rollout would involve injecting people with the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be stored at temperatures below minus 70 degrees Celsius.

“That’s created some complexity and that’s why we’ve invested in these new state-of-the-art facilities both here at the Royal Adelaide and also down at Flinders Medical Centre,” he said.

Other vaccination hubs, to be located at Lyell McEwin Hospital, the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Riverland General Hospital in Berri, Mount Gambier Hospital, Whyalla Hospital, Pt Pirie Hospital and Pt Augusta Hospital, will open during later phases of the roll-out.

Marshall said people in regional areas who need to get vaccinated during the first phase would be contacted by the Government.

He declined to say whether they would be paid to travel to Adelaide to attend the Royal Adelaide Hospital or Flinders Medical Centre, saying “all of those details are being worked through”.

It comes as South Australia reopens its border to travellers from regional Victoria from midnight tonight.

However, the border will remain shut to Greater Melbourne residents until at least next Thursday.

First patient transferred to SA’s dedicated COVID facility

South Australia’s new facility for COVID patients has been called into action, after a man in his 40s who recently returned from overseas tested positive for the virus in quarantine.

SA Health said the man was transferred to the state’s new dedicated COVID facility, the Tom’s Court Hotel, after testing positive in another medi-hotel.

A man in his 50s also tested positive today but is considered an old infection.

It brings SA’s total number of COVID cases to 608, with three active cases in the state.

Today’s figures come from a total of 6195 tests.

Adelaide CBD hospital to close

The Parkwynd Private Hospital on East Terrace, which has been operating for more than 100 years, will close down this year following a review into its operations.

Private health company HealthScope announced today the 23-bed facility will be shutting down in April, after the review found the delivery of healthcare services to required standards was no longer feasible in the 106-year-old facility.

State Manager of Healthscope SA Paul Evans said the decision “in no way reflects” on the skills of staff working at the hospital.

“We have looked in detail at opportunities to repurpose Parkwynd Private Hospital and keep the facility operating in another capacity but none of these options have proven viable,” Evans said.

“Our priority is to work with our dedicated and skilled staff to identify redeployment opportunities at other suitable sites.

“Parkwynd Private Hospital remains committed to supporting its staff between now and closure as they continue their vital work in supporting and caring for our patients.”

Evans added that Healthscope is “exploring opportunities” with SA Health for the site to potentially play a role in the state’s vaccine rollout.

Ash Barty crashes out of Australian Open

Ash Barty has suffered a dramatic collapse to crash out of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park.

Australia’s world No.1 capitulated from a set and a service break up in a shock 1-6 6-3 6-2 quarter-final loss to Czech Karolina Muchova on Wednesday.

Barty never recovered after losing nine out of 11 games mid-match after the 27th-ranked Muchova took a medical time-out while trailing the top seed 6-1 2-0 on Rod Laver Laver Arena.

Vic lockdown to end tonight

Victoria’s five-day lockdown will come to an end tonight, paving the way for South Australia’s border to reopen to regional Victoria.

The entire state has been shut down since Saturday, February 13, amid fears the UK COVID strain responsible for a hotel quarantine outbreak in Melbourne could see a disastrous third wave hit the state.

The lockdown will end at 11:59 pm (AEDT) tonight, as originally scheduled.

The stay-at-home order – only allowing people to leave home for essential work, shopping, care and exercise – will be repealed along with the 5km travel rule.

Masks will remain mandatory both indoors and outdoors where social distancing isn’t possible and the home gathering limit has been tightened to five visitors.

Schools will reopen on Thursday after shutting down for three days and shutdown businesses can resume trading.

The decision comes after Victoria Health this morning reported no new cases of COVID-19 from a total of 39,258 tests – a record number since the start of the pandemic.

It follows two local cases reported in Victoria yesterday, both of which were known household contacts of a previously confirmed case linked to the Melbourne Airport Holiday Inn cluster, which currently stands at 19 cases.

Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters this morning that the quarantine outbreak had been contained.

“Restrictions will come off at midnight tonight,” Andrews said.

“That is exactly what we said we needed, that is exactly what we said would work, and we are very pleased to be able to report that progress today.

“I am very proud of every single Victorian for the work that they’ve done, for the sacrifice they’ve made, and I’m very grateful to all of those working – thousands of people working 24/7 – to deliver this outcome.”

But the premier warned that “this is not over” given there are still nine days until the last of the outbreak’s positive cases reach a 14-day threshold.

“Next Friday we will be able to be even more definitive about the epidemiological picture across the state [and] the status of the virus across the state,” he said.

His decision means SA will go ahead with a planned reopening to regional Victoria today, after transition committee decided the state would reopen to residents outside of greater Melbourne if the Victorian lockdown ended as scheduled.

The change will allow restriction-free travel for regional Victorians into SA.

The looming border changes come as SA Police continue their investigation into the circumstances surrounding a fatal three-truck crash near the main SA-Victorian border checkpoint last week, as police tried to process a backlog of travellers from Melbourne trying to get into SA before a midnight border closure.

SA Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said the commissioner’s inquiry into the incident “will take some time”.

“We do have a due date of late March,” Stevens told reporters yesterday.

“That is also subject to review depending on the amount of work that has to be done.

“We’ve dedicated a senior officer to undertake that work, and when we have information about that [inquiry] we’ll provide it.”

SA recorded no new COVID-19 cases yesterday, from a total of 4932 tests.

At least 15 dead, millions without power in US winter storm

A winter storm in the United States has left millions without power and has been blamed for at least 15 deaths, with air travel and vaccination efforts halted across the country as an Arctic mass moves across the south of the country.

The death toll on Tuesday included three people found dead after a tornado hit a seaside town in North Carolina and four family members who perished in a Houston-area house fire while using a fireplace to stay warm.

The storm that overwhelmed power grids and immobilised the Southern Plains carried heavy snow and freezing rain into New England and the Deep South and left behind painfully low temperatures. Wind-chill warnings extended from Canada into Mexico.

At least 15 deaths were reported. Other causes included car crashes and carbon monoxide poisoning.

The weather also threatened to affect the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination effort. President Joe Biden’s administration said delays in vaccine shipments and deliveries were likely.

The National Weather Service was “very surprised how rapidly this storm intensified … and at the time of night when most people are at home and in bed, it creates a very dangerous situation,” Emergency Services Director Ed Conrow said.

The NWS’s winter storm warning covers more than 150 million people.

The worst US power outages were in Texas, affecting more than four million homes and businesses.

In Texas, three young children and their grandmother died in the Houston-area fire, which likely began while they were using a fireplace to keep warm during a power outage, a fire official said.

Other Texas deaths included a woman and a girl who died from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning in Houston at a home without electricity from a car left running in an attached garage, and two men found along Houston-area roadways who likely died in sub-freezing temperatures, law enforcement officials said.

In west Tennessee, a 10-year-old boy died after falling into an ice-covered pond on Sunday during a winter storm, fire officials said.

Several cities had record lows: In Minnesota, the Hibbing/Chisholm weather station registered minus 39C. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, dropped minus 26C.

Air travel was also affected. At midday on Tuesday, more than 2700 US flights had been cancelled.

Former PM comments on alleged rape in parliament

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under intense scrutiny over what he knew about an alleged rape inside Parliament House, as former PM Malcolm Turnbull weighed in on the issue.

Brittany Higgins alleges she was sexually assaulted by a male colleague inside a ministerial office in 2019.

Morrison says his office only found out about the alleged rape last week and he was not aware until Monday.

But former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said this morning it is “very hard to believe” the prime minister’s office would not have been aware of the incident “as soon as it occurred”.

“I find it inconceivable that that wasn’t well known to at least key members of the prime minister’s staff,” he told the ABC.

“And if it wasn’t, there was clearly an absolutely baffling breakdown in communications.”

He also questioned bringing in Liberal MP Celia Hammond to conduct a review into the culture of parliament.

“I think asking the new member for Curtin … to do a review effectively into the behaviour of her own colleagues puts her in a very invidious position,” Turnbull said.

“What I think should be done is there should be an absolutely rigorous, independent review.

“Get somebody outside of both the public service and the political parties to do that review, but really this is going to require strong leadership from the top.”

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has known about the alleged rape for nearly two years, and The Australian is reporting this morning that several Coalition and Labor MPs have known about the incident for months due to an ongoing confidential inquiry into the matter which has accepted 17 submissions.

The inquiry is also reportedly looking into the possibility that the Department of Parliamentary Services destroyed significant evidence by steam cleaning the office shortly after the alleged incident occurred.

Senator Reynolds has offered an unreserved apology to Higgins for her handling of the complaint.

“No woman should have to go through what she has been through,” Senator Reynolds told parliament.

“That trauma that comes not just in the immediate aftermath of an assault, but in the many months and the many long years that follow it is what those of us in this building failed to acknowledge.”

Senator Reynolds said she deeply regretted calling a meeting with Higgins in the place of the alleged attack.

The minister refused to say whether she had ongoing contact with the alleged perpetrator after the incident.

Senator Reynolds said his employment was terminated for a “security breach” and she could not recall any contact with him since.

Labor frontbencher Katy Gallagher told parliament the minister was “willfully negligent” as a minister and an employer and needed to take responsibility for the matter.

She said parliament was owed a detail explanation from the minister.

New directions for SA medi-hotel workers

New directions have come into force overnight for South Australia’s medi-hotel workers, formalising nationally mandated daily saliva testing and work requirements for the state’s frontline quarantine workers.

The updated Supervised Quarantine Direction prohibits all “people who work, are employed or engaged at a medi-hotel site” from working in another high-risk setting for 14 days after working at a quarantine faculty.

Any quarantine worker employed at another high-risk setting, namely residential aged care and correctional services, also has to inform their employer that they work at a medi-hotel.

The direction also formalises daily saliva testing for all quarantine workers, which rolled out in SA last week after national cabinet agreed to the measure in early January.

The saliva tests are in addition to weekly PCR testing requirements for SA medi-hotel workers, which has been in place since December.

Premier Steven Marshall indicated earlier this month that the current testing regime will expand on February 22 to all workers on the quarantine “pathway” from Adelaide Airport to the state’s medi-hotels.

A new direction on QR codes also came into force overnight, with businesses and events that have paper sign-in sheets now required to keep copies of the written information “safe and secure and away from the general public” as to “ensure that details are not copied, photographed or used” by someone other than an authorised officer.

If police choose to prosecute an incident of QR code information misuse, individuals could face fines of up to $25,000 and businesses $75,000

SA Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said the new fines are in place to ensure community expectations are met regarding safe storage of confidential information.

“It is simply providing a mechanism where we can make sure people are doing the right thing with this information,” Stevens said yesterday.

“We do recognise that we do have information out there in the community that people expect to be kept private.

“We need to be doing our bit to make sure that people understand their obligations and abide by those obligations.”

Nearly 50,000 businesses across the state have signed up for the QR code system since it was introduced in December 2020, according to the police commissioner.

AFL records $22.8m loss for 2020

The AFL recorded a loss of almost $23 million in 2020 but has avoided “financial armageddon” which some experts feared could bankrupt the league during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

AFL commission chair Richard Goyder on Tuesday announced the competition’s financial figures.

The $22.8 million operating loss is a serious hit, but nowhere near the $500 million predicted by some industry heavyweights last year.

After one round of games played in empty stadiums, the AFL was forced to suspend the 2020 season as the world adapted to the pandemic.

The AFL stood down 85 per cent of its employees and took brutal cost-cutting measures immediately, while all 18 clubs were also forced to axe hundreds of jobs.

But resuming the 17-round season in June, and later temporarily relocating all Victorian clubs, enabled a finals series to be run and a premier to be crowned.

“Working through the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 really tested both the resilience of the AFL and its clubs,” Goyder said.

“The collective unity of football enabled the game to weather arguably the biggest challenge in our history and reinforced the incredible connection football has with our members and supporters.

“The year was tough financially but I want to thank the boards and staff of the 18 clubs, our players, umpires and our own AFL Executive and team, led by Gillon McLachlan, for the work they did.”

Despite fans largely being unable to attend matches, total club membership was down 6.1 per cent from the all-time record (1,057,572) set in 2019.

The AFL’s revenue decreased by $119.1 million to $674.8 million, with the league explaining that fall on a reduction in crowds and government restrictions in response to the coronavirus.

“The work over a number of years to prioritise building a balance sheet to protect the industry in difficult times, including the early purchase of Marvel Stadium, allowed the game to trade through 2020 without incurring significant debt,” Goyder said.

“Regardless of the challenges we face in the next 12 months, our priority remains to keep our game as affordable and accessible as possible for all fans.”

It comes after Port Adelaide Football Club reported a statutory loss of more than $4 million for last season, which has blown out the club’s overall debt to $12m.

The club’s operating revenue dropped 32 per cent in the 12-month period ending October 31 last year, with the Power cutting more than $17m from its cost base

The Adelaide Football Club is yet to release their financial report for 2020.

Media bargaining code breakthrough edges closer

A world-first code setting a framework for the likes of Google and Facebook to fairly pay for Australian news content is edging closer to passing into law.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will today bring to parliament amendments to the bill, introduced in December, following his talks with the big digital platforms.

The platforms are encouraged to do deals outside the code, but if commercial agreements can’t be reached the code will act as a safety net.

A panel – decided by the negotiating parties or the media watchdog – would hear both offers and make a decision.

Among the amendments to the bill will be clarification the tech giants are expected to pay news organisations a lump sump rather than for every time an internet user clicks on a link.

Google had threatened to pull its search engine from Australia if it had to pay news companies for every link it shares of their articles.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission boss Rod Sims had said that was never the intention and the bill will now make that clear.

Frydenberg says the amendments also streamline requirements for digital platforms to give advanced notice of algorithm changes.

“(They) will enhance the way it operates and strengthen its ability to foster more sustainable public interest journalism in Australia,” he said.

Labor on Tuesday resolved to support the code, guaranteeing its passage through the Senate.

Seven West Media is the latest media organisation to secure a deal providing content to Google News Showcase, which launched in Australia earlier this month.

Deals had already been struck with smaller publishers including Solstice Media, Australian Community Media, and Private Media.

The Showcase feature allows users to read articles on a Google app for free that would otherwise be behind paywalls.

The code will be reviewed by Treasury within a year of its start.

Experts hail AstraZeneca approval in Australia

Australia’s second COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be ready for jabs by the end of March following Tuesday’s approval by the regulator, with experts praising the decision and reassuring the public of the vaccine’s efficacy.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration gave the green light to the AstraZeneca vaccine for people aged 18 and over, with decisions about those aged over 65 to be made on a case-by-case basis.

An initial supply of 3.8 million doses of the vaccine will be imported into Australia before millions more are manufactured at a CSL plant in Melbourne.

The vaccine has been found to have an efficacy rate of 82 per cent when two doses are administered 12 weeks apart.

TGA boss John Skerritt said the vaccine was recommended for all ages.

“AstraZeneca gives us a vaccine that can be used in major facilities, in primary care through GPs and potentially through pharmacy practices,” he told reporters in Canberra yesterday.

“Having a vaccine accessible in a country as wide and brown as ours is important.”

Associate Professor Hassan Vally from La Trobe University said the public should have “great confidence” in the vaccine given its use across the world.

“The important take-home message is that the vaccine is safe,” Professor Vally said.

“It has undergone a very thorough assessment process to get this approval, and further, not only have clinical trials been conducted but it has been administered to many millions worldwide.

“All of this should give us great confidence in receiving this vaccine.”

His comments were echoed by Senior Lecturer in Medical Sciences at Australian Catholic University Dr Roger Lord.

“Public confidence should be high for a vaccine that does not require very cold temperatures for storage, [has] no serious adverse effects, and [is] manufactured in Australia under strict regulation guidelines provided by the TGA,” Dr Lord said.

He added that a cautious approach is needed to assess the jab’s efficacy for older age groups, but said this should not be “a significant barrier to immunisation”.

The AstraZeneca approval came a day after an initial 142,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in the country with the first shots to start from Monday.

US Congressman sues Trump over riot

A Democratic lawmaker has filed a lawsuit accusing former US President Donald Trump and lawyer Rudolph Giuliani of conspiring to incite a violent riot at the US Capitol on January 6.

The lawsuit was filed by Representative Bennie Thompson, a Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, in the US District Court in Washington DC.

“The insurrection was the result of a carefully orchestrated plan by Trump, Giuliani and extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, all of whom shared a common goal of employing intimidation, harassment and threats to stop the certification of the Electoral College,” according to a lawyers’ statement.

The US Senate acquitted Trump of inciting the riot at the Capitol.

The Senate vote of 57-43 fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict Trump on a charge of incitement of insurrection after a five-day impeachment trial.

Meanwhile, Trump has lashed out at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, signalling a growing feud between the two most important voices in the Republican Party.

“Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” Trump said in a statement on Tuesday amid the fallout over the former president’s second impeachment trial.

Trump and McConnell parted ways in the weeks after the November 3 presidential election, with Trump irked that McConnell had recognised Democrat Joe Biden as the winner.

The gap between them widened when McConnell declared on the Senate floor on Saturday that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the deadly January 6 storming of the Capitol.

– With AAP and Reuters

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