NSW Health has just 24 hours to track down the source of three mystery COVID infections, or the Sunshine State dreams of millions of residents will be dashed.
Unless the origin of the three Sydney infections can be traced, they will bring to an end nearly a fortnight without community transmission of the coronavirus in NSW.
The new cases were reported late on Tuesday, after the 8pm Tuesday cut-off for NSW Health’s Wednesday data. All three are under urgent investigation and will be included in Thursday’s official figures.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the new infections – none of which are linked – were concerning.
“Overnight, we’ve had three cases of community transmission. None of those cases are related to each other. Two are from south-western Sydney and one is from western Sydney,” she said on Wednesday.
“I want everybody in NSW to continue to be vigilant and to continue to be on high alert.”
“Our suspicions that the virus is always lurking in the community are founded. And we wouldn’t have said that if we didn’t mean it.”
The positive tests are also a setback for hopes that Queensland might soon open its border to NSW residents.
The border has been closed since August 8, with Queensland firm in demanding NSW go 28 days in a row without a locally acquired virus infection before it fully reopens.
On Wednesday, Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles said NSW must trace the source of the new cases by Thursday night or the timer to reopen the border would be set back to zero.
“The [Queensland] public health units will provide the [NSW] contact-tracers with 48 hours to identify that link,” Dr Miles said.
Earlier, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk confirmed even a single locally acquired case in NSW would reset the clock on the Sunshine State’s requirements for 28 days without community transmission.
Ms Berejiklian, who has long criticised that policy, repeated her view it was unrealistic.
“We’re always going to have cases pop up because we’re in a pandemic,” she said.
“Queensland and Western Australia have the luxury of closing their borders so they have a higher chance of having zero community transmission cases.”
Ms Berejiklian said it was unlikely NSW would ever reach 28 days without community transmission of the virus as long as the pandemic lasted.
Queensland had no new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. There are just seven active cases in the state.
Chadstone cluster grows but Vic cases fall
Elsewhere, more than 170 people in regional Victoria have been sent into isolation to help stop the outbreak linked to Melbourne’s Chadstone Shopping Centre from spreading further.
There are now 31 cases linked to the Butcher Club in Chadstone, three more since Tuesday. It is the state’s largest cluster outside of aged care.
Two people in regional Victoria have been linked to the cluster after a case connected to the outbreak dined at the Oddfellows Cafe in Kilmore – 60 kilometres north of Melbourne.
Victorian health authorities have also rolled out asymptomatic testing to try to curb the outbreak. Jeroen Weimar, who is in charge of coronavirus testing at Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services, wants anyone who visited the Kilmore cafe between September 30-October 3 to be tested even if they don’t have symptoms.
DHHS has also used the cafe’s “excellent records” to trace every customer who visited in the time frame of concern.
“‘Each of those people has been followed up and as a result we have 177 people and the people that they live with in turn, so 177 people and their immediate households, who are now self-isolating,” Mr Weirmar said.
“That’s a big ask. We’re asking them to do that because they are close contact of a suspected case.”
Mr Weimar said 200 Kilmore residents were tested on Tuesday, while more than 1300 people have been tested at Chadstone.
Public health officers are visiting every retailer in the shopping centre.
It is the largest in Australia and claims to be the largest in the southern hemisphere.
“Chadstone has been a particularly challenging outbreak,” Mr Weimar said.
“It’s still a very active shopping centre for people doing click-and-collect and essential goods.”
Premier Daniel Andrews said authorities were confident the outbreak was under control, and denied it would derail plans to ease restrictions later in the month.
“This trend is with us, the strategy is working,” Mr Andrews said.
On Wednesday, Melbourne’s benchmark 14-day average of new cases fell below 10 for the first time. It is now at 9.9, as five million Melburnians eye its slow creep towards five so the city’s virus rules can be relaxed.
Mystery infections, which must also fall below five for Melbourne to take its next steps towards freedom, were down to 12. There are none in regional Victoria.
The state has also recorded two further fatalities, both linked to known outbreaks in aged care. The total virus death toll in Victoria is now 809, with the national figure at 895.