Australia’s most populous state says COVID-19 cases at 3-day low

(Reuters) -Australia’s most populous state on Monday reported its lowest one-day rise in new COVID-19 cases in three days, stoking cautious optimism that authorities have contained an outbreak in Sydney’s northern beachside suburbs.

New South Wales (NSW) said 15 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, down on the 36 infections detected a day earlier and bringing the total cases in the northern beaches outbreak to 83.

NSW Premier Gladys Brejiklian said it was too early to say a larger outbreak had been averted as northeastern suburbs entered the third day of a five-day lockdown in the leadup to Christmas.

“I’m pleased with what we’ve seen overnight, but again, it’s volatile,” Brejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

The government would provide an update by Wednesday on “what Christmas and the next few days look like” in terms of further containment measures beyond those already imposed on the northeastern suburbs, she added.

More than 80 locations including cafes, gyms, casinos and supermarkets across Sydney were identified as having been visited by people with confirmed cases. Authorities urged anyone who attended the venues to immediately get tested and self-isolate.

NSW on Friday ordered more than a 250,000 people in Sydney’s northern beaches area into a lockdown after the cluster of cases emerged, centred on two dining and entertainment venues in the seaside suburb of Avalon.

Those restrictions are set to be reviewed on Wednesday, though other states and territories moved quickly to close borders to all of Sydney’s 5 million residents, throwing Christmas travel plans into disarray.

Dozens of domestic flights due to leave Sydney were cancelled on Monday.

“A number of flights will be cancelled … we’ll be contacting customers directly impacted by any flight changes,” Qantas Airways Ltd said in an emailed statement.

With travel routes upended, Australian states and territories warned their own residents to leave NSW and return quickly if they wanted to avoid mandatory quarantine.

Australian police and military personnel have been deployed at many state borders to enforce the new rules, and lawmakers warned people to expect long delays across state lines.

Desperate to contain the spread, NSW has opened dozens of new testing sites, some of which are running 24-hours a day. NSW health authorities said more than 38,000 tests had been conducted in the past 24 hours, a new record.

The source of the infection is unknown although Brejiklian said tests showed the strain of COVID-19 found in Sydney’s northeast was almost identical to that found in an unnamed airline worker from the United States who arrived in Sydney on Dec. 1.

Australia has largely avoided high coronavirus numbers compared with other developed nations, but the new cluster has sparked fears of a wider outbreak. The country has recorded just under 28,200 cases and 908 deaths since the pandemic began.

Sydney’s outbreak has forced the abandonment of the annual Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race for the first time in 76 years, and other cities are on standby to host the cricket test between Australia and India scheduled to start at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Jan. 7.