New South Wales has recorded eight new community cases of coronavirus as authorities revealed about 2,000 people had been told to self-isolate due to an outbreak in Sydney’s west.
As Victoria recorded three new community cases amid renewed strain on the state’s testing system, NSW authorities expressed increased concern about an outbreak linked to a bottle shop at Berala.
Of the eight new cases recorded, five were linked to the Berala cluster, two were connected to the Avalon outbreak on the Northern beaches, and one was attributed to the Wollongong cluster.
The NSW chief health officer, Kerry Chant, said authorities were worried about the potential of transmission from the BWS store at Berala, which has been named as an exposure site between 22 December and 31 December.
The lengthy period exposure period would suggest an employee has tested positive, though Chant would not confirm more details about the positive cases linked to the bottle shop for privacy reasons.
About 2,000 people have been contacted by NSW Health and told to isolate. As an example of the potential danger, Chant said authorities believed about 1,000 people had been served at the bottle shop on Christmas Eve.
“We will be attempting to reach whoever we can through whatever records we have, but this is critical and I can’t stress enough how concerned we are about the transmission potential,” she said.
Chant also said that genomic sequencing had ruled out a link between the Berala cluster and the Northern beaches. Instead, it was connected to a patient transport employee who had caught the virus from a returned overseas traveller.
The Berala cluster has now reached 13 people.
Authorities are still yet to find the source of the Avalon cluster.
Asked if authorities would consider directing secondary contacts to isolate, Chant said that people who had visited the Berala BWS who had symptoms should also tell the rest of their household to “stay put” until a negative test was recorded.
“We have reached out to 2,000 people … and we will continue to contact more as lists become available,” she said.
Masks have also become mandatory in New South Wales. The move, which came after mounting calls, will be enforceable with a $200 fine from midnight on 4 January.
The NSW police acting commissioner, Mal Lanyon, said fines would be a last resort and that the force would use “discretion where it’s appropriate”.
The health minister, Brad Hazzard, said free masks were being distributed through Transport NSW and to vulnerable people through the Department of Family and Community Services.
John Barilaro, the acting NSW premier, also warned people from the area around the Berala cluster and “the broader Cumberland area” should rethink going to the third cricket Test at the SCG on Thursday.
NSW has so far resisted calls to close the match to spectators and the game is expected to be played in front of a 50% capacity crowd.
In Victoria, authorities said they would open new testing facilities in the coming days after a number of people were redirected to other sites on Saturday, amid renewed strain on the state’s testing system.
The three new cases reported on Sunday were all linked to the Smile Buffalo Thai Restaurant, taking that cluster to 21.
There were some 22,000 tests conducted in Victoria on Saturday.
Victoria’s Covid response commander, Jeroen Weimar, acknowledged there had been significant queues.
He said workers had come back from their holidays in order to boost personnel at testing facilities.
“There was a 35% uplift in the total number of tests delivered in the south and south-east suburbs yesterday compared to the day before so we are getting the numbers through,” Weimar said.
“So if you are waiting, please bear with us, it is important that we get these tests done so we can continue the encouraging trajectory on this Black Rock cluster.”
The number of exposure sites in Victoria has now reached about 50.
Weimar also revealed about 60,000 Victorians rushed back from NSW to cross the border before it was closed. They are all required to get a test.
People who arrive at the border will now be turned back unless they had been approved for an exemption.
Weimar said 1,500 people had so far applied to cross the border with an exemption.
“Those exemptions are being triaged and we are working through them in priority order,” he said.
“It will take us at least 24-48 hours to process those exemptions.”
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, was upbeat about the handling of the latest Covid outbreaks, saying “there is significant cause for hope in Australia”.
Speaking after a call with the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, Hunt acknowledged “the times are challenging” but said Australia’s cases numbers continued to be “astonishingly low” by global standards. He said the results indicated “significant containment both within Victoria and NSW”.
“We are winning but we have not won.” Hunt said.
Despite the federal government being highly critical of the Victorian government’s contact-tracing capacity during the second wave last year, Hunt said he had confidence in the state government’s current response and that the systems had “dramatically improved”.
Hunt also declined to criticise the NSW government for avoiding introducing a mask mandate until now, saying the state had been responding to its circumstances but had been encouraging people to wear masks even before taking the formal step.
“I think both NSW and Victoria are responding and responding well,” he said.