Sydney rushes to vaccinate as Delta variant tears through suburbs

Australia’s biggest city is struggling to contain an outbreak that began in June, as cases in New South Wales reach a record for a second day.

Australian authorities have begun handing out emergency supplies of COVID-19 vaccines in the Sydney suburbs worst hit by an outbreak of the fast-moving Delta variant, as New South Wales state reported another record rise in daily cases.

State Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the acceleration in inoculations on Thursday in Australia’s biggest city was providing some hope as the city battles its worst outbreak since the coronavirus pandemic began.

“The next few weeks will be hard, but no doubt that once we get those high vaccination rates life will feel much better, it will look much rosier,” Berejiklian told reporters.

“I know these are challenging times, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Berejiklian said there were 681 new locally acquired cases on Thursday, most of them in Sydney, exceeding the previous daily high of 633 set on Wednesday. Some 119,000 people came forward for testing.

One additional death was recorded – a man in his 80s – bringing the death toll from the outbreak which was first discovered in mid-June to 61.

Officials are racing to increase vaccination rates across New South Wales to tackle the virus spread and as a prerequisite for relaxing lockdown measures.

Berejiklian has yet to formally extend the shutdown, which is currently due to expire at the end of the month, but has made it clear that 70 percent of the state’s population over the age of 16 must be vaccinated, a target she expects to reach by the end of October.

About 28.5 percent of people in the state of New South Wales are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the authorities are now singling out people in the hardest-hit suburbs for inoculation [File: Loren Elliott/Reuters]

About 28.5 percent of people in the state are currently fully vaccinated, slightly higher than national numbers, while approximately 52 percent have received at least one dose.

Officials allocated more than half an emergency supply of Pfizer vaccines bought from Poland, equivalent to about 500,000 doses, to the 12 worst-affected suburbs in Sydney, They will be used to vaccinate people aged below 40 years over the next two weeks.

Living with Delta

More than half Australia’s population of 25 million people is living under lockdown measures, including Sydney, Melbourne and the capital, Canberra.

While the country’s overall exposure to the pandemic – with just over 41,400 cases and 971 deaths – is far lower than many other countries, the latest outbreak is proving more difficult to contain.

Cases more than doubled in Melbourne, the country’s second-largest city, on Thursday to 57. Canberra reported 16 new cases.

The outbreak has also spread to New Zealand, with health officials there confirming a link to Sydney from genome sequencing.

After announcing 11 new cases over the past day, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the analysis revealed the current positive cases were a close match to someone who flew in from Sydney on August 7.

The person tested positive for COVID-19 on August 9 and was moved to a quarantine facility. A week later he was transferred to a hospital.

“This is a significant development. It means now we can be fairly certain how and when the virus entered the country,” Ardern said at a news conference.

Health officials have warned Australia is vulnerable to more deaths and hospital admissions, given just 27.5 percent of the national population is fully vaccinated. About half the population has received at least one dose.

State leaders have increasingly diverged on their approach to the pandemic, with some still pushing for elimination, with others advocating finding an acceptable level of exposure.

“Everyone will have to learn to live with Delta and in New South Wales, we are learning that earlier than others,” Berejiklian said.