‘We will throw everything at this’: Victorian authorities in overdrive
Victorian health authorities will use their most intensive contact tracing strategy and "hard" close the border with NSW on Friday night in a bid to suppress a growing COVID-19 outbreak and avoid a third wave and further lockdowns.
More than 70 people were in isolation on Thursday afternoon after the state announced five new locally acquired coronavirus cases, adding to the three announced on Wednesday. One child under 18 tested positive, as did a woman in her 70s, two men in their 70s and a man in his 40s.
In NSW, 10 new cases were recorded on Thursday as pressure built on Premier Gladys Berejiklian to mandate mask-wearing and bar spectators from the Sydney Test. However, Ms Berejiklian said her government was trying to "strike the right balance" and she was reluctant to place more burdens on Sydney residents than was needed.
According to contact tracing commander Jeroen Weimar all of the Victorian cases are linked and authorities expect the outbreak to grow after close contacts were identified in Gippsland and the Surf Coast as well as in metropolitan Melbourne.
Mr Weimar said the response by Victorian health authorities would be rapid and thorough.
“We will throw everything at this to make sure we get everything under control as quickly as possible,” he said.
The first three cases in the Victorian outbreak are all linked with a transmission event that probably happened at the Smile Buffalo Thai restaurant at Black Rock on December 21. Authorities suspect a traveller from Sydney was the likely source of the infection. That person was being tested on Thursday.
As Melburnians queued for hours to get tested, the Andrews government closed the border to NSW, reintroduced mandatory mask-wearing indoors from 5pm on Thursday and simultaneously reduced the maximum number of people permitted to gather in a home from 30 to 15.
The sudden new restrictions forced many to alter New Year’s Eve plans, with some public health experts fearing super-spreading events might occur at parties and indoor gatherings.
But Health Minister Martin Foley said the government was "not planning on a further lockdown" because the state's public health teams had "learnt a lot" through the previous waves of the disease. He said they were up to the challenge of contact tracing.
"What we've got, through the hard work of our public health teams and our contact tracers, is in less than 24 hours, identification of now six related cases … and a series of exposure venues," he said.
Melbourne University epidemiologist James McCaw said public health teams were better placed to tackle the outbreak than during the state’s devastating second wave, and that the Victorian public was also more prepared.
He said it was good all the cases appeared to be linked to the Thai restaurant because it was “a single event that’s much easier to get on top of than if there were separate chains of transmission”. But he warned the next three to four days would be critical.
“People need to be incredibly vigilant,” he said.
Meanwhile, Western Australia closed its border to Victorians, and both it and South Australia have closed their borders to NSW. SA Premier Steven Marshall warned Victoria could follow within days.
Victorians in the red zones of NSW, including Greater Sydney, are now stuck north of the border and unable to re-enter Victoria. They will not have access to hotel quarantine in Victoria.
Those in the green zones – areas outside of Greater Sydney, the northern beaches, the Blue Mountains and Wollongong – have until 11.59pm on January 1 to get home, risking a rush on the borders on Friday.
Mr Foley warned Victorians to return immediately from NSW if they could.
"You do not want to be caught on the wrong side of a rapidly evolving situation," he said. "This is a very serious situation. Victorians who have sacrificed so much are not going to go back to a situation where we faced what we did in the past winter.”
“This is not an easy choice,” acting Premier Jacinta Allan said. “Closing borders and putting in place restrictions is never an easy choice to make, certainly not one we wanted to be making and announcing on a day that is supposed to be about celebrating.”
“Unfortunately the virus doesn't expire at midnight tonight.”
Mr Weimar said health authorities would apply the “third-ring” approach where cases, their close contacts and the close contact’s contacts would all be isolated. The government used this method, which can result in hundreds of people in isolation at one time, with success during the tail end of the second wave.
Mr Weimar also asked Victorians to keep away from nursing homes except for essential visits.
On a tumultuous New Year’s Eve for the government, Ms Allan and Mr Foley announced new cases on Thursday morning and said Victoria would not tighten border controls until health advice changed. By mid-afternoon and after multiple discussions with Premier Daniel Andrews, who is on leave, the pair called another press conference to announce the border closure.
Mr Foley said the contrasting approaches of Victoria and NSW had potentially been caused by the state’s respective experiences with the virus. Victoria had decided to go “hard and fast”.
Rules will soon be announced by the Victorian government to allow travel across the border for residents of border communities and arrangements for freight will remain in place.
Melburnians faced hours-long delays at many testing sites on Thursday. Arriving only 20 minutes after the Don Tatnell Leisure Centre drive-through testing centre in Parkdale opened, Janine Marchment and her two children waited more than three hours before being turned away. Ms Marchment's mother had to bring them lunch to eat in their car.
"It was ridiculous. I was four cars from getting into the car park to get tested and we got turned away,” Ms Marchment said.
One of the positive cases played a round of golf on Monday at Woodlands golf course near Parkdale in Mordialloc. The golfer’s playing partners are isolating. In Cape Schanck, a round of golf was cut short on Wednesday when a player received a phone call informing him he was a close contact of a case. It is not known if the cases are related.
The Royal Brighton Yacht Club closed after a positive case visited the venue on December 29.
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said he supported measures that would help avoid an explosion of cases but argued the new restrictions, introduced after less than 10 cases were recorded, showed the government had no confidence in its contact tracing system.
“I understand why the government has introduced statewide changes today, but certainly we should not be looking to go back to a statewide lockdown the way we had in the middle of this year,” he said.
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