Masks Return to Australian Cities as Omicron Sours Christmas
(Bloomberg) -- Australia’s two most-populous states are bringing back mask mandates as a surge in Covid-19 cases, led by the highly contagious omicron variant, threatens to roil Christmas plans for a second year.
In New South Wales, where Sydney is the capital, limits will also return on the number of patrons in hospitality venues from Dec. 27, in an attempt to limit the potential impact on the state’s health care system. Numbers are climbing at a slower rate in Victoria, home to Melbourne, which hadn’t eased public restrictions as fast as its neighboring state in recent weeks.
Both states will require masks to be worn in all indoor settings apart from private homes from Friday. In a further development later in the day, Western Australia state -- which has prided itself on its ability to keep Covid-19 out of its community through strict border measures -- said it was introducing mask mandates and would cancel some events over Christmas when a backpacker tested positive after 12 days in the community.
“Obviously there is concern in relation to our health workers,” NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet told reporters Thursday. “We believe the changes that we are making today will ensure that our health system is well manned over the holiday season as we go through this next stage.”
New South Wales reported a 52% jump in cases to a record 5,715 on Thursday. Perrottet reiterated the number of people needing serious treatment in hospital was still low and manageable, saying the health system was so far coping.
A total of 349 people in the state are in hospital -- the most since the start of November. But the number of patients being treated in intensive care units is at 45, compared with 77 almost two months ago when delta was the dominant variant.
“We just ask everybody across our state to be cautious over Christmas,” said Perrottet.
Omicron is putting pressure on Australia’s push to fully reopen. New South Wales and Victoria states recently removed months-long lockdowns which Prime Minister Scott Morrison says are now unnecessary due to a relatively high vaccination rate. Many testing centers have become overwhelmed due to the dramatic rise in case numbers and as some states require visitors to show a negative result from a test taken within 72 hours prior to arrival.
Victoria recorded 2,005 new cases on Thursday, with 398 people hospitalized and 72 in ICU. The state will also require face masks to be worn at major outdoor events with over 30,000 people.
In Western Australia, an international backpacker who complied with entry rules had tested positive for a strain not expected to be omicron, Premier Mark McGowan told reporters in Perth. The traveler has has “hundreds” of potential contacts in venues including pubs, nightclubs and a museum in the 12 days since arrival.
Masks will be mandatory in all indoor settings in the state until at least Dec. 28, while music festivals will be cancelled and nightclubs closed.
New cases in Queensland, the third-most populous state, doubled on Thursday from the day before to 369.
“Not only is the spread of this virus inevitable, it is necessary,” Queensland Chief Health Officer John Gerrard told reporters on Thursday. “In order for us to go from the pandemic phase to an endemic phase, the virus has to be widespread. We all have to have immunity.”
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