NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state must learn to live with COVID-19 as the number of people in hospital with the virus doubled within a week and the nation’s chief medical officer called for a circuit-breaker to halt the spread across Sydney.
As NSW reported a record 291 new cases on Friday, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said low vaccination rates, non-compliance and the speed of diagnosis highlighted the need to reconsider the state’s strategy.
“There is no sense that it is heading rapidly towards zero which is what remains our national approach at the moment. There is clearly a need for a circuit breaker,” Professor Kelly said.
More than 300 people are being treated for the virus in hospitals where health authorities have confirmed at least two people have died after contracting the virus from nurses.
Ms Berejiklian, who at the start of the latest outbreak said zero or as close to zero cases was the goal of the lockdown, on Friday said that target was now an “aspiration.”
“It’s obviously a challenge for us to get down to that number, but that has to be our aspiration. We have to try and get down as low as we can,” she said.
“We know, given where the numbers are and the experience of Delta overseas, that we now have to live with Delta in one way or another – and that’s pretty obvious. But the higher the vaccination rate, the safer we all are and the more free we will be”.
Positive COVID-19 cases in the state’s Delta outbreak surged past 4500 on Friday, with almost two-thirds of Friday’s new cases in people aged under 30.
Unions representing nurses and paramedics said healthcare staff were under immense stress with the added pressure of staff furloughing at western Sydney’s hospitals due to mandated isolation after COVID-19 exposures. Almost 1000 healthcare staff were on leave in the fortnight ending July 18.
Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes said the state’s health system was now in a “chronic situation, not an acute situation”.
“Delta is different from what we saw last year and this is added stress on a system that is already over-stretched. The next four to five weeks will be crucial for the health system as a whole.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced COVID-19 cases have spiked again overnight, with 291 infections and one death recorded.
Two of the 10 deaths reported this week were patients who contracted the virus while receiving care at Liverpool Hospital: a woman in her 60s, announced on Friday, and a man in his 90s, announced on Monday.
Three staff members at the hospital – two nurses and a student nurse – worked in the geriatric and vascular wards while infectious late last month, resulting in at least nine cases in patients.
NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant acknowledged the health system was stressed because of the number of cases coming into hospitals.
More than a quarter of new cases reside in the Canterbury-Bankstown area, placing authorities on high alert for increasing transmission and non-compliance.
Ms Berejiklian said there would be an enhanced police presence in the area, where too many people were frequenting shops and not adhering to stay-at-home orders.
Dr Chant said there had been a flattening of the curve in Fairfield and other hotspot areas, but health authorities were observing escalating cases in Campsie, Bankstown, Lakemba, Punchbowl, Wiley Park, Yagoona, Greenacre, Earlwood and Chester Hill.
“We are seeing transmission, potentially around shopping areas,” she said. “Do not enter shops when there are other people in the shop. Wait outside. Keep your social distance. Wear your mask correctly at all times and stay safe.”
Dr Chant said workplaces in hotspot areas were major breeding grounds for transmission despite tighter lockdown restrictions in those areas, which the government maintains are the toughest in the nation.
She said it only took one person introducing the virus to a workplace before multiple people and their households became infected, as occurred at KFC Punchbowl where 12 staff members have tested positive to COVID-19.
Anyone who visited the fast-food venue between July 27 and August 2 is considered a close contact and must get tested and isolate for 14 days.
“That is why it is so critical that people get tested at the earliest point, and that people within workplaces follow all the COVID safety practices,” Dr Chant said.
Two new COVID cases were reported in the Newcastle area on Friday, after the lower and upper Hunter regions entered a one-week lockdown sparked by a string of cases linked to a beach gathering at Lake Macquarie last week.
Dr Chant urged locals in the lower and upper Hunter to maintain high testing levels to ensure all chains of transmission were being detected.
Professor Kelly said the key issue for NSW was decreasing the transmission potential.
“Looking at ways that they can find people more quickly, making sure the compliance with those orders to stay at home are being complied with, that movement around Sydney and specifically outside of Sydney is enforced,” he said.
“How do we decrease the transmission potential? It’s about people not moving around whilst infectious and infecting others in workplaces.
“The extra vaccines that have been provided clearly are an important component of that. And they need to stay the course.”
More than 93,600 people received a vaccine in NSW on Thursday. The state needs to maintain a level of 69,000 doses a day if it is to reach the government’s goal of six million jabs, or 60 per cent of the population, by the end of the month.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said more than a million additional AstraZeneca vaccines could be provided to NSW, on top of the 180,000 further Pfizer announced this week.
“We announced that we’re going to bring forward some 180,000 additional Pfizer vaccines, that comes on top of more than a million that can be provided with the AstraZeneca vaccines to NSW to support their efforts.”
The government on Friday also revealed its revised return-to-school plan for year 12 students, which will only apply to those living outside the eight hotspot areas in south-western and western Sydney.
All HSC trials will be completed at home across Greater Sydney, and only small groups of students will be allowed on campus at any one time from August 16.
Ms Berejiklian said the plan would ensure students will not be disadvantaged in acquiring their qualifications, including those in hotspots who will not be allowed to attend classrooms.
“That’s why we’re giving the students in those eight local government areas of concern the opportunity to get the vaccine from Monday next week,” she said.
The government plans to vaccinate 24,000 year 12 students from south-western and western Sydney over five days at Qudos Bank Arena in Homebush next week.
Asked if the state would adopt a similar strategy to mass vaccinate essential workers who are driving the current outbreak, Ms Berejiklian said tens of thousands of workers were already being vaccinated across Sydney every week.
Associate Professor Paul Griffin, an infectious diseases physician and vaccine researcher at the University of Queensland, said vaccines were having a significant impact on severe disease.
“We know with two doses people can still get infected, but they are much less likely – almost more than 90 per cent less likely – to die from the virus,” he said, noting that, while these people would also shed less virus, some may have mild infections and pass it on.
“Zero COVID and elimination is seeming less realistic, and we need to focus on how to live with it to minimise consequences,” he said. “We need as many vaccinated people as possible, the vaccines work incredibly well.”
Victoria recorded four new cases of coronavirus on the first full day of its one-week lockdown. All the new cases are linked to existing outbreaks but were not in isolation for their infectious periods.