SYDNEY, Australia: An outbreak in Sydney linked to the highly contagious Delta variant has grown to 128 cases, authorities said on Monday. Cases have also been recorded in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia.
Officials say it is a “critical time” for the country, which has kept case numbers low with border closures and lockdowns.
This is the first time in months that cases have emerged in multiple parts of the country at the same time.
“I think we’re entering a new phase of this pandemic, with the more contagious Delta strain,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told ABC News on Monday.
The escalation in Covid infections has prompted lockdowns in the cities of Sydney and Darwin, as well as restrictions across four states.
The situation remains most concerning in Sydney, where some five million residents are subject to a stay-at-home order.
The New South Wales (NSW) state government on Sunday expanded a lockdown to cover all of Greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Wollongong. Many businesses and venues have been ordered shut.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Monday reported 18 new cases, down from the 30 reported the previous day. Nearly 59,000 people had been tested in the past 24 hours.
“We have to be prepared for the numbers to bounce around and we have to be prepared for the numbers to go up considerably because with this strain, we are seeing almost 100% of transmission within households,” she said.
Just a week ago Sydney was still in near Covid-free bliss – with people packed into restaurants and dancing in clubs in the city.
But the swift spread of Delta has upended months of the city, and the country’s ” new normal”. The strain is now linked to three of four clusters affecting Australia.
Experts say the nation’s defences have been beaten, multiple times, by the powerful variant. It’s breached hotel quarantine several times raising concerns about air transmission.
It’s also managed to break through relaxed distancing rules in society, latching onto unprotected workers. Mask-wearing is now back in almost every state in Australia.
In Sydney, officials say the virus is infecting 100% of household contacts when it’s brought into a home. It’s too early to tell if this lockdown will contain it, according to experts. Low vaccination rates have also left Australians vulnerable.
One expert told me it’s a “perfect storm” for “what is now easily the most dominant variant in the world”.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has described the Delta variant which was first detected in India as a “very formidable foe”.
“No matter what defensive steps we’re taking at the moment, the virus seems to understand how to counter-attack,” he said.
While the two cases in Western Australia have been traced to the Sydney outbreak, the positive cases in Queensland and the Northern Territory have been linked to people who became infected despite completing hotel quarantine.
The remote Northern Territory has recorded seven cases, prompting authorities to extend a lockdown of the capital, Darwin on Monday until Friday.
The Delta outbreak there had spread from a mining camp and now posed a significant risk to the community, officials said.
“For the first time, we do have public exposure sites in the Northern Territory,” said Chief Minister Michael Gunner.
Authorities are also on alert after a member of cabin crew staff for Virgin Australia worked on five domestic flights while infected with the Delta variant. The airline has contacted all affected passengers and crew.