New South Wales chief health officer Kerry Chant has told locked-down residents to brace for worse to come, after the state’s shock spike in COVID-19 cases.
NSW had 1029 new local cases on Thursday – the first time any Australian jurisdiction has topped 1000 infections in a single 24-hour period.
But Dr Chant said the numbers were likely to keep rising for some time.
“Clearly we’re at 1000 cases and I would indicate to you that the numbers may well go way above 1000 cases,” Dr Chant said.
“We know how infectious Delta is and it will rip through any unvaccinated areas.”
Dr Chant said as compliance with tough virus measures faltered, case numbers would keep rising.
“People are obviously feeling so tired and frustrated with the length and duration of the restrictions,” she said.
But she remained hopeful that by “incentivising vaccination” with the promise of additional freedoms, the state can still turn things around.
Also on Thursday, Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced new freedoms for fully vaccinated residents from September 13.
The promised perks for the inoculated will be different depending on where residents live – based on local government areas.
Outside of western Sydney’s 12 local government areas of concern – where the vast majority of cases are still being found – up to five fully vaccinated adults will be allowed to gather outdoors.
The groups will also be able to include unvaccinated children.
In the 12 council areas of concern, households with all adults vaccinated will be able to gather outdoors for recreation, such as picnics – but not with other households.
“For many they will go, ‘That’s not much’. So, I think, to be perfectly frank, these steps are baby steps, recognising the serious situation we are in,” Dr Chant said.
Regions a ‘tinderbox’: Barilaro
Meanwhile, the lockdown of regional NSW has been extended for another two weeks, as Deputy Premier John Barilaro warns rural communities are a virus “tinderbox ready to explode”.
Most of regional NSW has been in lockdown for a fortnight, and rules had been set to ease on Saturday.
But they have been extended as cases keep emerging. The outbreak in Dubbo has reached 309, with 24 new infections confirmed overnight.
Ms Berejiklian said western NSW remained the regional area of most concern, while cases had stabilised in other rural areas.
“Given that acute situation in Dubbo, in particular, the region lockdown will be extended to all of regional NSW until at least midnight, Friday the 10th of September,” Ms Berejiklian said.
Vaccination rates are low in that area, especially for the Indigenous community, which is at just 6 per cent.
Local MP Dugald Sanders acknowledged a return to zero COVID cases was “unreachable” but said extending the lockdown would be an opportunity to get numbers lower.
About 60 per cent of cases in the Western Local Health District are in Aboriginal people.
There have also been grave concerns for Wilcannia, in the state’s far west. It had five new cases overnight.
Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said food shortages in the remote indigenous community would be alleviated through a coordinated effort. Hundreds of food and personal hygiene hampers will be sent to the town.
“A local council will send food deliveries to households in Wilcannia,” he told parliament on Thursday.
“Our vulnerable community has had support”.
Mr Barilaro said it a longer lockdown would help protect regional communities like Wilcannia.
“We’re sitting on a knife-edge. It’s a tinderbox ready to explode,” he said.
The decision would also ensure “we don’t overwhelm the system”.
“One of the reasons you may not have cases is because of the restrictions in place, minimising movement, because we know we’re a very interconnected community in regional and rural NSW,” he said.
“Now is the time to stay united and work to those restrictions.”
Health Minister Brad Hazzard said “everything that is done should be done and is being done” to support rural health services.
Some 18 people are hospitalised in western NSW, including one who is ventilated.
Health worker numbers have also been hit, with 134 staff forced to isolate. They include 21 who were exposed to the virus at work.
Of the record 1029 local COVID cases in NSW on Thursday, 35 were in the Western NSW Local Health District, bringing the total number of cases there to 389.
There were 71 cases in the Nepean Blue Mountains district, six in the Far West, two in Illawarra Shoalhaven, and two on the Central Coast.
There were no new cases in the Hunter New England district.
NSW Health’s sewage surveillance program has recently detected virus fragments at the treatment plants in Tamworth, Merimbula, Cooma and Brewarrina.
There are so far no known cases in these areas.
‘Do not hesitate’: CHO
NSW also confirmed three more COVID deaths on Thursday, three men aged in their 30s, 60s and 80s.
Dr Chant urged anyone experiencing shortness of breath to call an ambulance without delay, revealing all of three men had deteriorated in their own homes.
“With COVID you can deteriorate. So, if you’ve got any change in your breathing, difficulty breathing, dizziness, or your condition is deteriorating, do not hesitate,” she said.