A beach party in Newcastle attended by young people from western Sydney has triggered a snap lockdown in eight regional local government areas as New South Wales authorities worry that the Delta variant of Covid is now spreading in the regions.
NSW recorded 262 coronavirus cases and five deaths in the 24 hours to 8pm Wednesday – its worst day so far in the pandemic. At least 72 cases were in the community for all or part of their infectious period.
But it is the detection of fragments of the virus in sewage systems in Armidale and Dubbo as well as in the Newcastle and the Central Coast that has authorities most worried.
There had been low levels detected in Armidale previously, which were thought to have come from an old case, but the levels have now increased to levels similar to those in Newcastle.
There are also concerns about spread into the north coast because of its proximity to south-east Queensland where there have been cases.
NSW authorities said a beach party at Blacksmiths beach which occurred last Friday appeared to be the link to five cases in the Newcastle area.
Strict lockdown restrictions will come into force at 5pm on Thursday for the areas of Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Port Stephens, Cessnock, Dungog, Singleton and Muswellbrook.
More than half a million people in those areas will be restricted from leaving their homes for a week, except to get essential supplies or undertake essential jobs.
Outdoor gatherings were legal in Newcastle last weekend, which is outside the greater Sydney lockdown area. But an unknown number of young people travelled up from the hotspot of western Sydney to attend, and have infected at people at the gathering.
The Maitland Christian school was closed on Thursday for deep cleaning after two students attended the party.
The library at the University of Newcastle has been listed as an exposure site on 30 July from 5pm to 11pm as has Target at Glendale shopping village on 1 August from 8.50am to 1pm. More sites were expected on Thursday afternoon.
There is also one case linked to the Blacksmiths beach gathering who resides on the Central Coast. There are a further eight unrelated cases on the Central Coast, all within one household.
“Can I just thank the people involved? Not that I want to see gatherings, but I also want people to tell us the truth,” the NSW chief health officer, Kerry Chant, said.
“If they’ve made a wrong judgment, if they’ve taken a course of action that they regret, please tell us the truth because that will allow us to find out who was there and stop any chains of transmission,” she said.
As a result of the outbreak, the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said the federal government had agreed to release a further 150,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine to NSW which will be deployed to the regions in the week of 16 August.
The NSW government has been diverting Pfizer doses away from regional NSW in order to begin a mass vaccination of 21,000 students from the eight hotspot LGAs in western and south-western Sydney from 9 August. All will be given Pfizer shots.
“I want to thank the prime minister for those extra doses on top of what we’ve already been allocated. That will make a big difference in us containing the spread,” Berejiklian said.
Despite the vaccination drive, the government is preparing to walk back from its plans to have year 12 students return to face-to-face learning on 16 August. The premier emphasised her determination that all students will be able to complete their HSC.
“A key priority of our government is to make sure every student can sit the HSC. It’s a legal requirement for every student to sit a public examination process. We want to make sure every child from those eight local government areas has the opportunity to do their best, to be their best, not only to protect them against the virus and protect their family but also to go through the HSC process,” she said.
She said she would make more announcements in coming days.
As well as a record number of cases, the number of deaths has spiked.
Five people died in intensive care units in the 24 hours to 8pm Wednesday. Four were unvaccinated and one had had one dose of AstraZeneca in late May. Their ages ranged from 60s to 80s.
There are now 51 cases in ICU, with one in their teens, three in their 20s, five in their 30s and five in their 40s. Some 46 of the ICU cases were unvaccinated, while the remaining five had had one dose.
The premier again urged everyone to seek a vaccination and foreshadowed that vaccination could be one of the criteria to allow some businesses to reopen in the future.