New South Wales recorded 18 new cases of locally acquired Covid-19 in the 24 hours to 8pm Tuesday including cases across greater Sydney, triggering the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, to announce a range of new restrictions on New Year’s events, while Victoria’s 61 day run of no new cases was broken on Wednesday evening with new three cases announced.
Of the new NSW cases, just half were linked to the northern beaches Avalon cluster. Eight of these people were already isolating. But Berejiklian said of particular concern were six cases outside of the known northern beaches cluster. Three adults and three children, all members of the same extended family, were part of a new cluster in Croydon, in Sydney’s inner west, and the premier said it was not clear how the family became infected. So far 34 close contacts of those cases had been identified.
“In particular, the Croydon cluster is of concern because there are no direct links [to existing clusters] at this stage,” Berejiklian said. “The health experts are working overtime with all extended family members who are involved to make sure that all contact details and venues and movements of that family are made apparent so we can identify all the close contacts.”
Three further locally acquired cases were under investigation. Two cases, members of the same household, were from the Wollongong area and one was from northern Sydney.
Given the current situation on the northern beaches and increasing concern about transmission in other parts of greater Sydney, which includes Wollongong, the Central Coast and Blue Mountains, Berejiklian announced new restrictions would be in place on New Year’s Eve. In greater Sydney household gatherings would be limited to five visitors including children. The limit for outdoor gatherings would be reduced from 50 to 30.
“Common sense is important, following our advice is important, even though the health orders allow you to do certain things, you’ve still got to make assessments to yourself as to what is safe and whether your vulnerable family members should be exposed, whether you have a symptom and should get tested and stay home and not participate in any gathering,” Berejiklian said. “The worst thing any of us can do is unintentionally give the virus to those closest to us.”
On Wednesday evening, the Victorian Department of Health announced that state’s 61 day streak of no cases had been broken, after three cases were found among a resident of the bayside suburb of Mentone, a person from Hallam in the outer south-east, and another case was detected in Mitcham, in Melbourne’s east.
Jeroen Weimar, the Victorian commander of the Covid-19 response, said the three cases – two women in their 40s and a woman in her 70s– were self-isolating at home and were being monitored by the Department of Health.
“We have been in this position before and we are deploying our full outbreak approach around these cases. Extensive contact tracing is underway and as a result there are currently more than 40 primary close contacts that are being supported to isolate immediately.”
Anyone who attended Mentone/Parkdale Beach on 27 December between 10am and 4.30pm, Century City Walk and Mocha Jo’s, Glen Waverley on 28 December between 1:30pm and 5pm and Katialo restaurant, Eaton Mall, Oakleigh between 7pm and 8.15pm on the same day is advised to seek a test immediately and self-isolate until they receive a result.
The source of transmission is still being investigated.
The Victorian Department of Health announced that anyone who has been in or visited the Blue Mountains or Wollongong regions from 27 December will have until 11.59pm on 31 December to enter Victoria.
“Anyone intending to return to Victoria from these areas between midnight tonight and 11.59pm on 31 December must apply for a new travel permit through Service Victoria, must get tested within 24 hours of returning to Victoria, and must self-quarantine at home for 14 days from when they last left the region,” the department said in a statement.
Nobody who has visited these areas will be able to enter Victoria after then.
Berejiklian was questioned on the safety of allowing thousands of spectators to attend the Sydney Cricket Ground for the third Test between Australia and India on 7 January.
Berejiklian said masks would be handed out to those attending but they would not be mandatory. By comparison, masks are still mandatory in Victoria in supermarkets and other places where social distancing cannot be maintained, and people must continue to carry a face mask at all times when leaving home, despite no community Covid cases being recorded in that state for two months.
“But as the best health advice tells us, outdoor ticketed seated events are safer than household gatherings, and that’s just a fact,” Berejiklian said.
Professor Raina MacIntyre, an epidemiologist with the University of NSW and head of the biosecurity research program at the Kirby Institute, said she could not understand why masks were not mandatory in Sydney.
“There’s a reluctance to lockdown because it’s going to hurt the economy, that I understand, but a mask mandate isn’t going to hurt the economy, and if anything it’s going to save the economy,” she said.
Between 30 to 50% of infections were asymptomatic, she said, adding to a risk cases might be missed and cause spread without widespread use of masks.
She said it was “quite feasible” NSW might start recording up to 50 cases a day.
“That’s when you can easily lose control of the contact tracing, as happened in Victoria,” MacIntyre said. “And at that stage when you lose control the only thing that will stop the epidemic is a lockdown.”
MacIntyre said she feared the cricket test match in Sydney in January may prove to be a “super-spreading event”.
“It’s just like adding a third super spreading event, following Christmas and New Year,” she said. “The surge in cases we will already have as a result of those first two events, without a mask mandate, will be like trying to deal with one hand tied behind our backs.”
Asked whether the new cases and spread beyond the northern beaches meant the measures in place over Christmas had not worked, Berejiklian responded: “What this demonstrates to us is during a pandemic you have to take decisions based on the science and the data, and that’s exactly what we have done at every step of the way. And that’s exactly what we will continue to do.
“It’s always a balancing act of the health risk versus what restrictions you impose on the community, and every decision we have taken in NSW has been based on the health advice. Whenever the health advice changes … we respond very quickly.”
Restrictions for the northern zone of the northern beaches remain the same but for the southern zone of the northern beaches household gatherings will also be limited to five visitors from within that zone, including children. These changes come into effect from midnight Wednesday.
Testing rates needed to increase, the state’s chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said. There were 17,267 tests carried out in the 24 hours to 8pm Tuesday, compared with more than 69,o00 tests to 8pm last Thursday.
“Please get tested,” Chant said. “Don’t think it is the common cold, don’t think it’s another cause, we really need you to go and get tested and remain isolated. And please don’t even second-guess yourself. If you’re feeling a bit fatigued more than usual, if you think you have got some symptoms, don’t second-guess those symptoms.”
She shared her concern about the Croydon cluster and the importance of finding how that family became infected. Authorities had been hoping their infections would be linked to the northern beaches cluster, she said.
“That did not materialise. So clearly I think the premier and I are expressing the fact that we are concerned that … we have not found a link despite 24 hours of really intensive investigations. It’s not to say we won’t, but at this stage that is concerning.”
NSW Health has asked indoor diners and staff who attended Buckley’s craft beer bar on the Opera House promenade on 17 December between 7.30pm and 9pm to be tested immediately and isolate until they receive a negative result as part of investigations into the source of the case from Wollongong. The same advice has been given to anyone who attended an Open Air Cinema screening of the film Prom at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair on 17 December.
On Wednesday afternoon NSW health revised the advice for people who had attended two Greek Orthodox churches in Wollongong on the weekend.
Anyone who attended on 27 December between 9am and 10.15am is deemed a close contact and must get tested and isolate for 14 days regardless of the result. Anyone who attended Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Wollongong on 27 December between 10.30am and 11am is a casual contact who must get tested and isolate until a negative result is received.
The full list of locations can be found here.