COVID-19 cases in Australia’s Victoria hit record daily high

SYDNEY, (Reuters) – COVID-19 infections in Australia’s Victoria hit a pandemic record on Thursday as Melbourne, the state capital, looks to exit its lockdown next week, several days ahead of plan, helped by a faster-than-expected vaccine uptake.

The surge in daily cases comes as Victoria nears the 70% threshold for double-dose vaccinations among eligible adults, when authorities have promised to end a months-long lockdown, against the original Oct. 26 forecast.

Victoria logged 2,297 new cases on Thursday, the highest number of any state or territory in the country since the pandemic began. Eleven new deaths were recorded.

Most new cases were detected in Melbourne, with the city now clearly at the centre of the country’s Delta outbreak.

Sydney, where the first case was detected in mid-June, continued a downward trend in new cases. Daily infections in New South Wales eased further to 406 on Thursday, the majority in Sydney, well down from the state’s pandemic high of 1,599 hit in early September.

Sydney could enjoy more freedoms from Monday, beating forecasts by a week, as the proportion of fully vaccinated people above 16 is expected to top 80% this weekend. The city came out of a lockdown of more than 100 days earlier this week.

As Sydney and Melbourne aim to begin to live with COVID-19, some virus-free states have flagged they may delay their reopening plans even after higher vaccinations amid fears outbreaks could overwhelm hospitals.

Officials are bracing for a spike in infections in Australia’s two largest cities once tough restrictions end, but they hope higher vaccination rates will limit hospitalisations.

Higher inoculation coverage among the most vulnerable populations has helped Australia to keep its death rate from the Delta flare-up lower than last year’s outbreaks. Still, Delta has accounted for about 77% of the country’s 136,000 cases. Total deaths stand at 1,495 since the pandemic began.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Thursday said Australia’s medical regulator has allowed Pfizer (PFE.N) to submit an application to allow five-to 11-year-olds to be vaccinated with its COVID-19 vaccine.