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What we know today, Thursday August 19


New South Wales has a new record 681 cases today, eclipsing yesterday’s 633, with experts warning numbers are doubling every 11 days and Australia could be headed towards an “Italy-style health catastrophe”.

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‘National emergency’ warning as NSW records another COVID milestone

New South Wales has a new record 681 cases today, eclipsing yesterday’s 633, with experts warning numbers are doubling every 11 days and Australia could be headed towards an “Italy-style health catastrophe”.

After NSW yesterday recorded 633 local infections, experts warned numbers were doubling every 11 days.

Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb said modelling showed daily cases could jump to between 3000 and 4000 within 30 days unless urgent steps were taken.

“We’re in now what is a national emergency,” he told the Nine Network on Thursday.

“We’re in a steam train that is heading towards a cliff, not heading towards a station which is where we should be going.”

Professor Crabb is urging the NSW government to implement uniform restrictions across all areas of Sydney including a curfew and five-kilometre travel limits.

He believes immediate action coupled with more generous support for workers and business could turn the situation around.

“The worse case scenario is we have an Italy-style health catastrophe. That is actually the trajectory at the moment,” Professor Crabb said.

“The best outcome is lockdown until sort of Christmas.

“Now, I don’t know how on earth they would keep numbers as they are now, because we are doubling every 11 days.”

Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations chair Jane Halton said she has been lying awake at night thinking about how to stop the virus.

“Every person who’s got this disease is on average transmitting it to 1.3. So, sadly, the numbers are marching upward and we’re not seeing them come down,” she told Nine.

She said understanding why people continued to move around despite restrictions, and providing financial incentives to stay home were crucial.

“We need a carrot and we need a stick,” Halton said.

Deputy Chief Health Officer Sonya Bennett is more upbeat about case numbers falling.

“We’re really expecting to see and anticipating that we will see a decrease in those numbers shortly,” she said.

Vic records 57 new cases, most linked

More than two-thirds of Victoria’s new COVID-19 cases are from day 13 tests, with most coming from students and close contacts of a Melbourne school.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed 41 of the state’s 57 new local cases had been tested on day 13 of their isolation.

Of the 41, 38 are students and households linked to the Al-Taqwa College outbreak and will have to restart their isolation period.

“I know 57 seems like a very big number,” Andrews told reporters on Thursday.

“But when the vast majority of those have been in isolation for their infectious period, that’s exactly what we want. That is the system working exactly as it should work.”

Fifty-four of the cases are linked to known outbreaks, while 44 were self-isolating throughout their infectious period.

The three cases under investigation are in Ascot Vale, Doncaster and Glenroy.

The figure is the state’s highest daily tally since the second wave and coincides with Melbourne’s 200th day of lockdown.

NZ cluster grows to 21 after SA shuts border

New Zealand’s COVID-19 cluster has grown to 21 cases on day two of its nationwide lockdown, after South Australia yesterday shut its door to arrivals from the country.

New Zealand’s Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s announced 11 cases on Thursday, after 10 were detected on Wednesday and the initial case – which prompted a three-day national lockdown – was discovered on Tuesday.

All 21 cases are Auckland based, and a majority are aged under 30.

Some 326 people have been categorised as close contacts, a number that will rise to around 1000 by day’s end, according to Bloomfield.

Genomic sequencing has revealed a strong link to a man who returned to New Zealand on a “red zone” flight from Sydney on August 8, and tested positive during his fortnight in hotel quarantine on arrival.

“Our cases are most likely to have come from the traveller,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters on Thursday.

Officials are now focusing contact tracing efforts towards the quarantine hotel, Auckland’s Crowne Plaza, and its facility for confirmed cases, Auckland’s Jet Park hotel.

“How long was it out there before we knew about it? That information today gives us a really strong sense it may not have been long,” she said.

It comes after South Australian authorities moved on Wednesday to limit arrivals from New Zealand.

Any arrivals from New Zealand and the Cook Islands will have to undergo 14-days directed quarantine in a medi-hotel.

They will also be subject to tests on day one, five and 13.

Previously, travellers from New Zealand were allowed to travel into South Australia unrestricted – the only international arrivals allowed to do so.

South Australia’s closure with New Zealand comes alongside the state’s closed border with NSW, Victoria, Queensland, the ACT and Northern Territory.

South Australia recorded no new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.

A man in his 20s – the state’s only active case – remains in an intensive care unit in the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

ACT outbreak at 83, with 16 new cases

Canberra has recorded 16 new coronavirus cases, taking the ACT’s outbreak to 83.

Of the new cases, 11 are linked to existing infections while five remain under investigation.

Canberra’s light rail, bus routes, an early learning centre at Turner and a Belconnen general practice are among new close contact exposure sites.

More than 8700 tests were conducted on Wednesday.

NSW has also recorded two new cases at Queanbeyan, which borders the ACT.

Darwin lockdown to end

The Northern Territory’s lockdown in Greater Darwin will end as planned after no new COVID-19 cases linked to a US defence contractor were found.

The town of Katherine will remain in lockdown for a further 24 hours as authorities continue testing people who could have had contact with the infected man.

About 150,000 people were locked down for three days on Monday after the man in his 30s travelled from Sydney via Canberra to Darwin.

The Greater Darwin lockdown will end at midday (local time) on Thursday as planned but Katherine, 300 km south, will remain under wraps until Friday.

“We need Katherine to hang tight for another day,” Chief Minister Michael Gunner told reporters on Thursday.

Gunner said the man was more infectious while he was in Katherine and the town of 8000 is a busy hub with links to many remote Aboriginal communities.

Contact tracers are also yet to find 12 people who potentially crossed paths with the man at the local Woolworths.

“I am sorry you have to do this for another 24 hours, this is the recommendation of our health experts,” Gunner said.

Authorities still don’t know how and where the man contracted the virus.

The infection has been confirmed as a strain of the Delta variant but it hasn’t yet been linked to any other cases in the country.

Taliban may be blocking exit from Kabul: US

The Taliban may be blocking Afghans from evacuating Kabul despite their claims to the contrary, a senior US diplomat says, as only 26 people boarded Australia’s first evacuation flight for stranded Afghans who helped allied defence forces during the war.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman says the US has seen reports that the Taliban are preventing civilians from reaching the besieged airport.

Sherman made the remarks at a news briefing in Washington, where she said in the last 24 hours US military flights had evacuated more than 2000 people.

Earlier on Wednesday, US troops guarding the evacuation effort at Kabul airport said they had fired shots in the air in an effort to control the desperate scenes.

The Taliban said their soldiers had also fired shots in an attempt to disperse crowds.

The number of US troops at Kabul’s international airport reached about 4500 on Wednesday and several hundred more were expected over the next 24 hours.

It comes as Australia pledges rescue flights and 3000 visas in response to the Taliban’s takeover.

A RAAF C-130 Hercules successfully evacuated 26 people from Kabul airport to the United Arab Emirates where the Australian military is based for the operation.

The evacuees will then be transferred to Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said efforts to extract Australians and Afghans who helped allied forces over the past two decades would ramp up in subsequent flights.

“This is not a simple process,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Regular flights are scheduled in coming days but poor weather forecast may hamper evacuation efforts.

Morrison concedes not all Afghans who helped Australia will be rescued as part of the operation.

Australia will provide 3000 humanitarian visas this financial year to Afghan refugees desperately trying to flee the Taliban.

That will come from the existing intake, rather than a special allocation, and is below other nations’ commitments.

Canada has offered resettlement to more than 20,000 people at risk and the United States is accelerating its visa application process.

Australia has been accepting between 1300 and 1900 Afghans on humanitarian grounds in recent years.

Unemployment tipped to rise amid lockdowns

Economists expect today’s jobs figures to show a rise in the unemployment rate, likely to be the first of several in coming months, as the economic downturn from widespread COVID-19 lockdowns begins to hit home.

The labour force report for July is released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Thursday, with economists forecasting a rise to five per cent unemployment from the decade low of 4.9 per cent reached in June.

If correct, it will be the first monthly increase since October last year when the rate stood at 6.9 per cent.

Economists expect the unemployment rate could reach 5.5 per cent in coming months as a result of contraction in the economy.

There is some uncertainty over how large the impact from the restrictions will have been in July, given states and territories have been in and out of lockdowns, apart from NSW.

Forecasts range from an unemployment rate rise to 5.2 per cent to an optimistic prediction of a fall to 4.5 per cent.

South Australia’s most recent unemployment figures in June showed a 5.3 per cent jobless rate – the highest in the country.

The number of people employed across the country is expected to fall by around 46,000 this month, although forecasts range from a 90,000 fall to a 20,000 rise.

Meanwhile, figures on Wednesday showed the wage price index – a key guide for wages growth used by the Reserve Bank and Treasury – rose just 0.4 per cent in the June quarter to an annual rate of 1.7 per cent.

While this was up from 1.5 per cent as of the March quarter, it remains close to the record low 1.4 per cent seen in the second half of 2020.

It is also well below the current rate of inflation at 3.8 per cent, indicating that real wages are going backwards.

South Australia had the lowest rate of private sector wage growth in the country at 1.6 per cent.

The figures were seized on by Shadow Treasurer Stephen Mullighan, who said there was “little by way of a plan” from the State Government to improve wage growth and unemployment.

“Every time Steven Marshall and Rob Lucas try to claim the economy is flying, remember South Australia has the worst jobless rate and the slowest wages growth,” he said.

“All we’re seeing is more delays to job-creating infrastructure projects and businesses crying out for more financial support to help them deal with COVID-19 restrictions.”

Cases spiral amid NSW rush to vaccinate

NSW is racing to vaccinate as many people as quickly as it can as the daily COVID-19 case numbers spiral higher despite nearly eight weeks of lockdown.

The state reported 633 new locally acquired cases on Wednesday, smashing its previous daily record by 155.

It’s now coming closer to the record set by Victoria on August 5 last year, when 687 people were diagnosed in a single day.

“We haven’t seen the worst of it,” Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters on Wednesday.

Each infected person is passing on the virus to 1.3 others, on average, meaning the trend is still upwards.

“I can’t express enough my level of concern at these rising numbers of cases,” Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said.

Elective surgeries at nearly 30 private hospitals were suspended on Wednesday, so that staff can be re-deployed to plug gaps in the public system and administer vaccines.

The state also recorded a new record number of vaccinations in a single day.

Some 109,550 NSW residents received a jab on Tuesday, taking the vaccine coverage for people over 16 to 54 per cent (with at least one dose).

Vaccine hubs are popping up across western and southwest Sydney, as authorities try to get 530,000 Pfizer doses into the arms of under-40s in those areas in under three weeks.

Meanwhile, the virus has continued its spread in regional NSW, with the government undecided if the one-week snap lockdown for the whole state will be extended.

Seventeen of the 23 new cases recorded in western NSW on Wednesday were in Dubbo, with the remainder in Mudgee, Narromine and Gilgandra.

There are now four others in the state’s far west, with three in Wilcannia and one in Bourke.

There are no new cases in Broken Hill, after a local resident tested positive to the virus on Monday and was infectious in the community for three.

-With AAP and Reuters

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