New South Wales has not hit the peak of this Delta outbreak.
That was the message from experts on Thursday, after the state recorded 1024 cases. A new study from the University of Sydney now warns that cases could peak to between 1500 and 6000 by October.
That modelling serves as yet another warning against lifting restrictions too soon, and comes as Australia’s leaders are due to thrash out sticking points of a national reopening plan when Scott Morrison chairs a national cabinet meeting on Friday.
Meanwhile, more regional Victorian venues have been linked to the outbreak.
And there was a bizarre bust at the Queensland-NSW border where a woman was found hiding in a boot to avoid health orders.
Here’s the latest.
New South Wales
The University of Sydney has found that under the current settings, daily COVID-19 case numbers in NSW could peak between 1,500 and 6,000 a day by early October.
Infections could surge to 40,000 if restrictions were fully lifted when 80 per cent of adults were vaccinated, according to the modelling reported by the ABC.
Study lead Mikhail Prokopenko said he expects the NSW lockdown to lift in November and said social distancing should remain in place after that time.
“Our modelling suggests the worst is yet to come if the restrictions are removed too soon and too abruptly,” Professor Prokopenko said.
NSW recorded 1029 daily coronavirus infections on Thursday, bringing the nation to its highest number of cases since the starts of the pandemic.
Four more people died from the virus, taking the toll of the ten-week outbreak to 80.
It’s believed 844 of the new cases may have been active in the community during their infectious period.
Among the new infections are 116 cases in regional NSW, prompting a two-week extension of stay-at-home orders, with Deputy Premier John Barilaro warning rural communities are “a tinderbox ready to explode” with COVID-19 cases.
But there was some good news, with Premier Gladys Berejiklian announcing a long-promised change to restrictions earned after the state reached six million vaccinations.
From September 13, up to five fully vaccinated adults can gather outdoors, but only those outside of western Sydney’s local government areas of concern.
Children can be included in these groups of five.
In the 12 council areas of concern, households with all adults vaccinated can gather outdoors for recreation, such as picnics – but not with other households.
More relief is on the way for businesses, with announcements on further assistance looming, as well as details of a plan to return students to school.
The government is reportedly considering a staged return in term 4, when NSW vaccination rates hit 70 per cent, beginning with students in kindergarten to year two and year 11s.
Strategies to support the state’s struggling health system are also being mulled, with Health Minister Brad Hazzard on Thursday introducing a new measure to help it cope with the high caseload.
The state will become the first to require health staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Health workers must have their first dose of vaccine by September 30 and be fully vaccinated by November 30, or at least have their second appointment booked to continue working.
Mr Hazzard said most health staff had already rolled up their sleeves, but the new public health order would ease pressure on the health system.
“More than 1200 healthcare workers have been in isolation each day over the past seven days and we cannot afford that right now,” he said in a statement.
“Vaccinations will help ensure our fantastic staff can continue to care for patients.”
There are almost 700 COVID-19 patients in NSW hospitals, with 116 in intensive care beds and 43 ventilated.
At least two western Sydney hospitals – Westmead with 121 virus patients and Blacktown with 15 – have called “code yellows” as their caseload climbs.
More than 1500 COVID-19 patients are also being cared for in the community by the Western Sydney Local Health District.
As of Tuesday, 61.47 per cent of eligible NSW residents have had at least one vaccine dose, while just under 33 per cent are fully jabbed.
More regional Victorian venues have been linked to the Delta outbreak.
New ‘Tier 2’ exposure sites, added late on Thursday night, include venues across Melbourne as well as a kebab shop in Geelong and a supermarket in Echuca.
‘Tier 1’ sites now include the Sir Ian McLennan Centre in Mooroopna near the COVID-battered town of Shepparton.
In better news for those caught up in the outbreak in that region, isolation reprieve could be on the way for some cooped-up residents.
Goulburn Valley Health chief executive Matt Sharp confirmed at least five or six more cases linked to the outbreak had been detected by Thursday afternoon, on top of the 18 announced earlier in the day.
About 16,000 residents in the region, which has a population of 65,000, are believed to be self-isolating.
Mr Sharp confirmed the health department could potentially downgrade local tier-one exposure sites, particularly those involving schools, which would release some close contacts from their 14-day isolation early.
“In the next 24 to 48 hours, I’m hopeful we might be able to see some of those exposure sites have their tier rating reclassified,” he told reporters in Shepparton.
Food distributors, supermarkets and pharmacies are among businesses forced to reduce operating hours due to staff shortages.
Emergency Services Minister Jaclyn Symes said the government was working with supermarkets to backfill staff from nearby regional stores and 400 food relief packs had been delivered to those in isolation.
“Rest assured, there is plenty of food available and supermarkets remain open,” she tweeted.
To coordinate relief on the ground, the state’s deputy emergency management commissioner Deb Abbott and other senior departmental officials have been sent to Shepparton.
About 70 Australian Defence Force personnel will also support testing efforts and door-to-door checks in the region over the next one-to-two weeks.
Testing queues were quiet as up to 25 members were trained and sent to sites on Thursday afternoon, and Mr Sharp expressed concern some people required to come forward were yet to do so.
Premier Daniel Andrews similarly pleaded for Victorians not to delay testing, saying several new cases had experienced COVID-19 symptoms for a week or more.
Over the past week, data shows only 40 per cent of symptomatic cases reported getting tested when symptoms developed.
Mr Andrews said it was too early to say whether the statewide lockdown would lift on September 2, despite daily infections surging to 80 on Thursday.
Meanwhile, a new permit has been approved for those who complete hotel quarantine interstate, and mandates a day 17 test when they return to Victoria.
The ACT is set to reveal tweaks to Canberra’s coronavirus restrictions, with Chief Minister Andrew Barr warning the coming months will be difficult.
His cabinet has been briefed on changes to restrictions ahead of the end of lockdown scheduled for September 2.
With the changes dependent on next week’s case numbers, Mr Barr has sought to temper community expectations.
“(It) will not be a significant easing of restrictions; it will be a gentle step forward and this will remain the case through spring,” he told reporters.
“We’re not going to be in a position, given our vaccination rates and all that is transpiring around us, to go back to being where we were prior to this outbreak.”
Slightly more than 37 per cent of ACT residents aged 12 and older are double-dosed as the territory prepares for the widespread vaccination of under-16s.
The ACT will count children as young as 12 in key vaccination targets of 70 and 80 per cent coverage.
Mr Barr will also raise the issue with state, territory and federal counterparts at national cabinet on Friday.
Canberra recorded 14 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday as its outbreak, stemming from Sydney, grew to 190.
Nine people were in hospital including an unvaccinated woman in her 40s in intensive care.
All of the latest cases were linked and one was briefly in the community while infectious.
Mr Barr said this showed the lockdown was working but warned the next three months would involve a delicate balancing act.