Asia Today: Australia outbreak grows, spreads to New Zealand

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Supermarket staff help a customer with her shopping in Auckland, New Zealand, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. New Zealand’s government took drastic action Tuesday by putting the entire nation into a strict lockdown after detecting just a single community case of the coronavirus. (Hayden Woodward/New Zealand Herald via AP)

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia’s most populous state reported a record 633 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday as concerns grew about the delta variant’s spread beyond Sydney.

The previous record in New South Wales, which includes Sydney, was 466 on Saturday. Three people died on Tuesday, bringing the death toll from the outbreak first detected in Sydney in mid-June to 60.

“I can’t express enough my level of concern at these rising numbers of cases,” state Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said. “I’m incredibly concerned.”

Infections were also reported in towns in the west, north and central regions of the state in recent days, Deputy Premier John Barilaro said. “The delta strain is really putting regional New South Wales on that knife edge,” Barilaro said.

Sydney has been in lockdown since June 26 and the entire state has been locked down since Saturday.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian has rejected criticism that Sydney’s lockdown restrictions needed to be tougher, describing the lockdown as “extremely harsh and extremely strict” and based on expert health advice.

The national capital Canberra, which is surrounded by New South Wales, reported 22 new infections from the cluster that originated in Sydney. There have been 67 infections detected since the coronavirus was first discovered in Canberra on Thursday last week.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— The first outbreak in six months in New Zealand has grown to seven people. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Wednesday that number is expected to keep growing, especially after some of those infected spent time at a church, a school, a casino and a hospital. Ardern also announced people will be compelled to wear masks in supermarkets, gas stations and pharmacies during strict lockdowns. That came after the government on Tuesday imposed a strict lockdown of at least three days for the entire country and at least seven days in Auckland and Coromandel after identifying the first infection. Ardern said genome testing has confirmed that the outbreak is of the delta variant and originated from the outbreak in Sydney, although it’s not yet clear how the virus breached New Zealand’s border quarantine controls.

— Beijing’s top official is reiterating the need for strict anti-coronavirus measures at next year’s Winter Olympics, now less than 200 days away. Cai Qi, the city’s Communist Party chief and president of the organizing committee, was quoted as saying Beijing was intent on holding a safe Olympics. On a tour of venues, Cai emphasized strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus were needed but did not say whether general spectators would be permitted in the stands. The Tokyo Olympics were held without fans and with participants contained in a bubble with frequent testing and mask-wearing. State media report Olympics staff may get vaccine booster shots as a further safeguard.

— The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says Southeast Asia is battling the world’s highest COVID-19 death toll, driven by the delta variant and unequal distribution of vaccines. Southeast Asia recorded 38,522 deaths from COVID-19 in the last two weeks, nearly twice as many as North America, it says, citing data from John Hopkins University. Seven of the top 10 countries where COVID-19 deaths have doubled the fastest are in Asia and the Pacific, with Vietnam, Fiji and Myanmar in the top five, according to Our World in Data. Its Asia Pacific director Alexander Matheou called Wednesday for richer countries to urgently share their excess vaccine doses with Southeast Asian nations to curb record surge in infections and deaths in the region. It said vaccine companies and governments also need to share technology and scale up production to help ramp up low vaccination rate in the region. While the United Kingdom, Canada and Spain have fully vaccinated over 60% of their population, it said Southeast Asian nations are falling far behind. Malaysia has fully vaccinated 34% of its population, Indonesia and Philippines close to 11% and Vietnam less than 2%. Matheou said each country must aim for mass vaccination rates of 70%-80% for the world to overcome the pandemic.

— Qantas Group says it will require all staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Front-line employees, including cabin crew, pilots and airport staff, must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15 and remaining employees have until the end of next March, the Australian airline company said Wednesday. Exemptions will be made for staff who are unable to be vaccinated for documented medical reasons. Such exemptions are expected to be “very rare,” the company said. It said a survey found that 89% of staff were already vaccinated or planned to be. U.S. airlines are divided over whether to insist staff are vaccinated. Qantas has become the second large Australian company outside the health and aged care sectors to make COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory. The Transport Workers Union, which represents Qantas Airways and subsidiary Jetstar staff, criticized the company for making the announcement without a plan to ensure employees could secure vaccinations.

— Sri Lanka is closing swimming pools, gymnasiums and children’s parks and imposing stricter rules on people leaving their homes in an effort to control soaring COVID-19 cases. The new regulations allow only one person to leave home other than for employment. Offices and businesses can operate with limited personnel and customers. Sri Lanka is facing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, with health officials warning that hospital facilities and morgues are at full capacity. The government has ruled out a full lockdown, saying the ailing economy cannot sustain one. Sri Lanka has reported 365,683 cases, including 6,434 deaths.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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