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What we know today, Friday July 23

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NSW has reported 136 new locally acquired cases of COVID-19 almost a month after much of Sydney was locked down, with that state’s chief health officer saying the rising number was a “national emergency”.

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‘National emergency’: NSW records 136 new COVID cases

NSW has reported 136 new locally acquired cases of COVID-19 – at least 70 of which were out in the community while infectious – almost four weeks after Greater Sydney and its surrounds were locked down in a bid to eliminate the virus from the community.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state’s chief health officer had advised the government’s crisis cabinet the outbreak was now a “national emergency”.

“There is no doubt that the numbers are not going in the direction we were hoping they would at this stage,” she said on Friday.

“It is fairly apparent that we will not be close to zero by next Friday.”

The state has now recorded two consecutive records in daily case numbers, after reporting a previous high of 124 cases on Thursday.

At a national cabinet meeting on Friday, the premier will push for the national vaccination strategy to refocus on Sydney – particularly hotspots in the city’s west and southwest.

“Fortunately, one thing that has become apparent during the last few weeks is that barely anybody with two doses of the vaccine is having acquired a serious illness,” Berejiklian said.

“Both vaccines, are working. We need to get more of them into arms, even if it is a first jab.”

Since lockdown was introduced on June 25 for four Sydney local government areas, then expanded to the entire region the next day, infections have spread to Orange and interstate to Victoria.

Three local government areas – Orange, Blayney and Cabonne – in the state’s central west are in lockdown until at least July 28.

And NSW health authorities are concerned the virus has spread to northern NSW after fragments of the virus had been detected at a sewage treatment plant serving Byron Bay, Wategos, Suffolk Park, Sunrise and Broken Head.

There are no confirmed cases in the area, so far.

Trans-Tasman bubble pops

New Zealand has suspended travel ties with Australia for two months as several states deal with coronavirus outbreaks.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the decision after a cabinet meeting on Friday.

The trans-Tasman bubble will burst at midnight on Friday but there will be managed return flights over the next week to allow New Zealanders to return home.

Those outside Victoria and NSW will be able to return without going through quarantine.

Everyone will need to obtain a negative pre-departure test.

“My strong message to every New Zealander in Australia right now who does not want to stay there long term is – come home,” Ardern said.

Australia is grappling with serious coronavirus outbreaks in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, with a local case also recorded in Queensland.

More than 14 million people are in lockdown across the country.

The travel bubble began on April 19 and allowed Australians and New Zealanders to travel between the two countries without the need to quarantine.

However, Ardern said the highly contagious Delta variant had materially changed the risk profile and COVID-19 was now widespread in Australia.

“We’ve always said that our response would evolve as the virus evolved,” she said.

“This is not a decision we have taken lightly, but it is the right decision to keep New Zealanders safe.”

Qld flight attendant COVID scare

Queensland could be headed for another lockdown if a flight attendant passed the highly contagious Delta variant to passengers on six flights across the state.

Authorities are working to determine if the QantasLink worker has spread COVID-19 to the regional centres of Gladstone, Longreach and Hervey Bay.

The woman also spent time in the Brisbane suburb of Banyo, where she lives.

Chief health officer Jeannette Young says the attendant didn’t seek a test until Wednesday – nine days after she began showing symptoms on July 13.

It’s believed the woman would have been infectious two days before that, putting at risk every passenger and colleague on six flights she crewed on July 11 and 12.

The worker has told health investigators she was “essentially” at home in Brisbane from July 13 onwards.

“We’re just working that through to see that that is the case,” Young said while ordering Brisbane residents to closely monitor the list of exposure sites in case the woman did leave home.

Young did not yet know why the woman waited so long after the onset of symptoms to get tested.

Health teams are going through the passenger lists for the at-risk flights.

Young said it was essential that every one of those people underwent testing.

Genomic sequencing has confirmed the flight attendant has a form of the virus identical to 60 cases from the NSW cluster, and she travelled to NSW in the course of her work.

One new case in SA after TAFE, winery listed as exposure sites

SA Health has reported one new COVID-19 case today, linked to the Tenafeate Creek Wines exposure site, after a northern suburbs TAFE and a Barossa Valley winery were added to the list of  exposure sites identified by SA Health overnight.

There are now eight cases linked to the Tenafeate winery, which is listed as an exposure site from 1:45pm to 4:30pm on Sunday, July 18. The number of cases associated with the Modbury cluster is now 15.

SA Health late on Thursday added a new list of exposure sites across the northern suburbs of Clovercrest, Surrey Downs, Barossa Valley, Gawler East and Regency Park.

Among the new locations is the landmark Seppeltsfield Winery in the Barossa Valley, which is listed as a location of concern from 8:45am to 6:00pm on Monday, July 19.

The Regency Campus TAFE SA (G block) is also listed as a tier one exposure site from 8:30am to 4:30pm on Monday. The C and F Block, iCentral and Main Entrance of the campus are deemed to be at-risk from 9:45am to 11:00am on the same day.

Anyone who was at the winery or the TAFE during the listed periods is required to immediately get tested and quarantine for 14 days along with their household contacts.

There are now 79 exposure locations associated with the Modbury cluster, 52 of which are tier one sites.

The new exposure locations come amid concern from authorities that they haven’t captured the full scale of the outbreak.

Chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier on Thursday said only 34 people have been tested out of 125 people who visited the cellar door during the at-risk period.

She also said only 53 of the 91 people who were at The Greek on Halifax restaurant in the city on Saturday night have recorded tests. Three cases have so far been linked to the CBD venue which was attended by the man in his 80s whose infection started the outbreak.

“This is very critical for me and because of these being a high-risk location what we’re doing at the moment is moving all of those people into the medi-hotel facility,” Spurrier said.

SA Health reported a total of 17,592 tests on Wednesday, a record number since the start of the pandemic although reports of lengthy wait times across South Australia’s 86 testing sites continue.

Premier Steven Marshall apologised on Thursday for the long delays.

He said the Government needed to do a “much better job at telling people about the likely wait times”, with authorities looking to create a digital booking system for COVID tests.

The State Government has called in 36 members of the Australian Defence Force to assist with testing across South Australia.

Authorities are due to provide a COVID update at 11am.

Victoria records 14 new cases, all linked

Victoria has recorded 14 local COVID-19 cases, all of them linked to known outbreaks.

The state’s department of health said 10 of the 14 cases recorded in Friday’s figures were in quarantine throughout their entire infectious period.

One of the four remaining cases has yet to be interviewed by contact tracers.

The lower figure adds to hopes Victoria’s extended restrictions may be eased as promised on July 27.

Victoria on Thursday administered 14,302 vaccine doses.

Lockdown prompts surge in calls to homeless service

South Australia’s lockdown has prompted a 300 per cent increase in calls to the state’s 24/7 homeless services phone line, Uniting Communities says, with interstate border closures and movement restrictions leaving hundreds stranded across the state.

Homeless Connect SA is the State Government’s homelessness service provider directory line run by not-for-profit Uniting Communities SA and Helping Young People Achieve.

Uniting Communities says that in the 48 hours since the lockdown was announced on Tuesday, Homeless Connect has received 4300 calls – a 300 per cent increase on their usual volume.

They also say 130 rough sleepers have since been accommodated in hotels and emergency accommodation since the announcement.

The homelessness service provider attributed the increase to interstate border closures which have left travellers in SA stranded without ongoing accommodation, and restrictions that have left Aboriginal people unable to return to country.

Robyn Sutherland, Executive manager of community services for Uniting Communities, said it was also a challenge to re-accommodate people living in overcrowded environments which pose additional health risk.

“We also need to recognise that the lockdown has occurred in the middle of the SA winter with cold and wet weather forecast for the rest of the week, compounding the impact of the lockdown for homeless people,” Sutherland said.

She said nine additional staff members – five day time and four night time – have been put on to cope with the increased demand.

“Each request for assistance needs to be assessed because all circumstances are different. We triage and prioritise those most at risk – we are working with the SA Housing Authority to ensure anyone who is rough sleeping can comply with the SA Health directions,” she said.

It comes after Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink on Tuesday said rough sleepers and domestic violence victims would have access to short-term motel accommodation for the duration of the seven-day lockdown.

TGA approves Pfizer jab for kids 12-15

Children aged 12 to 15 in Australia will be eligible for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine after the jab’s use was approved by the country’s medicine regulator.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed the Therapeutic Goods Administration ruling on Friday.

The next step is for the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to give its approval.

If ATAGI gives the green light, children with impaired immune systems or underlying medical conditions will be immediately added to the rollout and able to access Pfizer.

“The US is doing this for 12 to 15-year-olds and they are providing the world with very, very important safety data,” Hunt said.

Pfizer is already approved for people 16 and over.

Hunt confirmed September to early October was the expected timeline for under-40s to receive their first Pfizer jab.

“That is the expectation at the moment. If there were to be a variation, we can bring it forward.”

South Australian Health Minister Stephen Wade said the TGA approval was raised at a meeting of health ministers last night.

He said there are still age cohorts above 12 to 15 which will be higher priority.

“Some of the older age groups like the 16 to 40s, which are currently not receiving it in South Australia, are a higher transmission risk,” Wade told ABC Radio on Friday.

“There are more young adults at nightclubs than there are 12 to 15-year-olds, so we’ll be looking very much for the advice from ATAGI.

“To be honest with you I don’t know how long that will take.”

The United Kingdom’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation decided this week against giving COVID-19 vaccinations to under-18s who don’t have underlying health conditions.

The UK regulator’s guidance said children with severe neuro disabilities, Down’s Syndrome, immunosuppression and profound and multiple learning disabilities would be eligible for the vaccine.

World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has argued countries that vaccinate children now against COVID-19 do so at the expense of health workers and high-risk groups in other countries.

Union fires up over Govt building exemptions

Confusion over the status of South Australia’s building industry during lockdown continues, with the state’s major construction union claiming it was not consulted about a decision to grant a partial exemption for the industry to restart work on high priority State Government projects.

Construction work was not classified as essential when South Australia’s lockdown came into force on Tuesday, but the industry was granted a partial exemption on Thursday with work on some “essential state infrastructure” to recommence from Monday.

In a briefing email sent to various industry leaders yesterday, Premier Steven Marshall said construction work would recommence on “a very small number of high priority projects”.

This includes the construction of “vital hospital, emergency services, school and transport infrastructure”, with COVID-safe plans in place at all the targeted sites.

Most of the projects listed, however, are school construction works ahead of next year’s planned shift of Year 7 students into high schools.

These include works at Adelaide High School, Glenunga International High School, Goolwa Secondary College, Heathfield High School, Mark Oliphant College, Norwood Morialta High School, Playford International College, Roma Mitchell Secondary College and Unley High.

CFMEU SA Construction Secretary Andrew Sutherland said his union was not consulted about the exemption despite directly contacting the premier’s office, and criticised the partial reopening of the industry.

“There is no reason to declare that these construction projects are safer or more essential than other projects, other than that they are projects which the Marshall Government has a political interest in,” Sutherland said.

“Either construction work is safe at this time, or it isn’t. Construction workers should not have their health and safety, and that of their families, put at risk in any way for the political benefit of the Marshall Government.”

Sutherland said the CFMEU was seeking clarification on whether SafeWork SA safety inspectors and union work health and safety would be deemed essential workers.

“Our attempts to communicate with the Government, including directly with the Premier’s office, about re-opening our industry have not received even the courtesy of a response,” he said.

“We call upon the Marshall Government to immediately reveal whether it has received advice that it is safe for the construction industry to re-open, and if it has to announce a re-opening of the entire industry rather than creating one set of rules for its own projects, and another for the rest.”

Premier Steven Marshall said on Thursday he “wasn’t personally involved” in the decision to exempt some construction projects, saying the new COVID direction would offer “some minor leniency around essential work in SA”.

Missing SA man thought murdered

An Adelaide man who went missing more than six months ago is now thought to have been murdered.

Police have declared the disappearance of Robert Atkins a major crime.

The 29-year-old was reported missing by his mother on January 2.

On Thursday, major crime detectives and forensic officers conducted a search of a home at Christie Downs, in Adelaide’s south.

SA Police say more details about the ongoing investigation will be provided on Friday.

NSW braces for higher COVID numbers

Four weeks since the NSW government locked down four Sydney local government areas, the state is bracing for daily COVID-19 case numbers to exceed the outbreak high of 124.

“We anticipate case numbers will continue to go up before they start coming down and we need to brace ourselves for that,” Berejiklian said on Thursday.

The lockdown of Greater Sydney was extended to July 30.

But with the government aiming to get the number of people infectious in the community as close to zero as possible, stay-at-home orders are not likely to lift that soon.

Of the 124 cases recorded in the 24 hours to 8pm on Wednesday, at least 70 were active in the community for some or all of their infectious period.

NSW Health on Thursday evening published a new list of exposure sites, including places where staff appeared to have worked while infectious.

A Campsie supermarket is listed as a close contact venue for 33 hours over three days at the end of last week. A Marrickville factory is a venue of concern for long spells over four days as well.

The lockdown now extends beyond Sydney and surrounds to Orange and other areas in the state’s central west. Stay-at-home orders will be in place there for at least a week, but no further exposure sites were added in the area on Thursday evening.

NSW Health said late on Thursday that fragments of the virus had been detected at the sewage treatment plant that served Byron Bay, Wategos, Suffolk Park, Sunrise and Broken Head.

Australia-Windies ODI postponed over COVID

Australia’s second one-day international against the West Indies in the Caribbean has been postponed in bizarre and dramatic circumstances before a ball could be bowled after one of the host’s backroom staff tested positive for COVID-19.

The teams had been named, the captains had tossed up and Australia were ready to bat at the Kensington Oval in Barbados on Thursday when a halt was suddenly called to proceedings moments before the first ball was due to be bowled.

Amid a brief and confusing delay for onlookers while the players, support staff and match officials retreated to their dressing rooms, the International Cricket Council then announced in a statement on Twitter the match had been suspended.

“The 2nd ODI between West Indies and Australia has been suspended with immediate effect due to a positive COVID-19 case,” the governing body declared.

“All personnel inside the bubble will be placed into isolation.”

Cricket West Indies later confirmed that the positive test had been given by “a non-playing member” on their staff, and explained that the test result had not been known until after the toss had taken pace.

“The established COVID-19 protocols stipulate that all members of both teams and match officials will return immediately to the team hotel and will be re-tested later today,” a statement from CWI said.

“They will remain in isolation in their hotel rooms until their PCR test results are returned.

“A decision on when the match will be replayed will be made at a later date once all the test results are confirmed.”

Australia had won the opening game of the three-match series on Tuesday but there must now be a serious question mark over whether the series can be completed, with the final ODI scheduled for Saturday.

The Australians are then supposed to be heading to Bangladesh for the five-match T20 international series that was confirmed on Wednesday.

Johnny Grave, the Cricket West Indies CEO, said it was hoped that the results of the fresh round of tests would be known by Friday morning.

A Cricket Australia spokesman added: “The Australian squad has returned to the team hotel and is in in-room isolation. No further comment will be made at this stage.”

Olympic shock: Olyroos stun Argentina for opening win

The Olyroos have started their Tokyo Olympics campaign in spectacular fashion with an upset 2-0 victory over Argentina, with coach Graham Arnold insisting Australia are in the hunt for gold after their stunning win.

Lachlan Wales and Marco Tilio scored in Sapporo on Thursday as the Olyroos took control of their section, with Group C rivals Egypt and Spain battling out a goalless draw earlier in the day.

Arnold, who had declared before the game that his side would “shock the world”, said: “We’ve been building the belief in the boys that they can do this.”

“We are here to compete for a gold medal, we’re not here to compete with the numbers,” he said.

“I know in the past that it’s seen just as a success to make the Olympics.

“I don’t see that. We’re here to compete for a medal like all the other teams.”

A combative contest saw 10 players booked and Argentina defender Francisco Ortega sent off before half-time.

But the Olyroos held their nerve in sapping conditions and Arnold said that during difficult times it was a result to put smiles on Australian faces back home.

He said: “It was probably the last thing I mentioned before the boys went on the pitch.

“Australia – New South Wales especially – is going through a tough time at the moment with COVID-19.

“I said to the boys there’s a lot of families at home in lockdown, let’s put a smile on a lot of Australian faces and give them something they will remember.”

The Olyroos are in action again on Sunday, against Spain in Sapporo.

-With AAP and Reuters

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