Australia’s Victoria reports easing in COVID-19 cases

SYDNEY, (Reuters) – Australia’s Victoria state reported on Wednesday 221 new locally acquired cases, down from the year’s record high of 246 a day earlier, as authorities try to ramp up vaccinations to begin easing some tough restrictions.

About 62% of people above 16 in the state have had at least one dose, slightly lower than the national average, with officials promising more freedom once it hits 70%, expected later this month.

Australia has locked down Sydney and Melbourne, its largest cities, after outbreaks from the highly infectious Delta variant in June ended months of little or no community transmission.

The country now aims to live with, rather than eliminate, the virus once it achieves broad vaccine coverage of about 70% of its adult population of 20.6 million, a goal it is expected to reach by early November based on current rates.

Australia has largely avoided high coronavirus numbers seen in many other developed countries through lockdowns and tough border restrictions, with just 64,600 cases and 1,052 deaths reported throughout the pandemic.

As it prepares to emerge from lockdowns in its two biggest cities, the government is considering the use of vaccination certificates for international travel from October, the Sydney Morning Herald said in a report without citing a source.

Australians are banned from leaving the country unless they have exemptions, while returning travellers must undergo a two-week hotel quarantine at their own expense.

The prime minister’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

New South Wales, the epicentre of the country’s worst outbreak, has seen new infections slightly ease for the last three days but officials expect it to hit its peak next week.

The latest pandemic modelling by Burnet Institute showed without lockdowns or rapid vaccinations there would have been an estimated 590,000 more cases and 5,800 deaths in Sydney’s 12 hard-hit western suburbs over the six months to December.

So far, 139 deaths and nearly 30,500 cases have been reported since the first case was detected on June 16 in the state. High vaccination levels among the most vulnerable mean the mortality rate is 0.41% in the Delta outbreak, data shows, below previous outbreaks.