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More than 1000 people are in isolation as health authorities work to contain a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant spreading in Sydney’s east while the city’s population remains largely unvaccinated.
There was one new case reported in NSW on Friday: a man in his 50s who attended Bondi Junction Myer at the same time as a limousine driver who tested positive to Delta variant earlier this week.
Masks were mandated on Sydney public transport, and strongly recommended in all indoor settings, until next Wednesday in an attempt to reduce the risk of the virus spreading on a bus or a train. Visits to aged care facilities have been restricted to two people.
Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant asked eastern suburbs residents to be particularly alert, given cases were catching the virus in low-risk settings.
CCTV footage showed the man was only shopping in the same section of Myer as the driver, who is being investigated by police amid allegations he did not adhere to daily testing requirements. A woman who tested positive earlier this week was infected while diningat Vaucluse’s Belle Cafe.
On Friday evening, NSW Health updated its advice for Myer and David Jones at Bondi Junction. People who visited level 2 or 4 of Myer last Saturday from 11.15am to 11.50am, or level 1 of David Jones from 10.55am to 11.15am, are now considered close contacts and must call NSW Health on 1800 943 553 before getting tested and self-isolating for 14 days.
Dr Chant said the spread of the virus at such locations required “extra vigilance”.
“Given the emerging evidence of the initial case’s highly infectious status to date, NSW Health will review all of his other exposure sites and may upgrade several from casual to close contact venues.”
NSW Health said 1100 contacts had been tested and were in isolation, as additional venues at Bondi Junction, Macquarie Park, North Sydney, Newtown and Campbelltown were added to its list of exposure sites.
The Kirby Institute’s Professor Greg Dore said it was “very encouraging” only one new case was detected on Friday.
“Irrespective of what variant the outbreak is due to, getting an outbreak early on really does give your ‘test, trace isolate’ mechanisms the very best chance of getting it under control,” he said.
Professor Dore noted the Delta variant had the same median incubation period as other COVID-19 variants of five days, so he did not believe it required a different approach.
“The Berala cluster was also short contact in people coming out of the bottle shop,” he said.
James Wood, an applied mathematician in UNSW’s School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said that while the Delta variant was more worrying, tracers were getting better at identifying cases using mechanisms such as CCTV.
“There is more of a risk of a casual contact being infected with this virus,” he said. “What we know from the UK is the Delta variant is twice as infectious as the virus we had last year, probably due to people expelling more virus when they breathe.”
ANU epidemiologist Meru Sheel said the transmissibility was “really complex” and involved both Delta’s higher “secondary attack rate” - the number of contacts who become cases - and the individual’s viral load.
Dr Sheel said it was important to monitor how many cases were vaccinated and how many of their contacts are vaccinated to understand the outbreak’s epidemiology.
The vaccination status of cases in the cluster, who are all over the age of 50, has not been reported.
Data provided by the Department of Health to The Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week showed NSW was falling behind the national vaccination rate, with about 40 per cent of people over 50 and 57 per cent of those over 70 receiving at least one dose.
Dr Sheel said that while other public health measures were still important, Australia needed to embrace its “extra tool” of vaccination, noting the AstraZeneca shot was 92 per cent effective against the Delta variant in preventing hospitalisation.
Professor Dore agreed vaccination would revolutionise how local cases are tackled in the future.
“We will be doing this for the rest of this year, but 2022 should hopefully be a different scenario.”
As Premier Gladys Berejiklian asked casual contacts of cases to limit their movements in case they were reclassified as close contacts, other states started imposing restrictions on people from Sydney’s east.
Queensland will shut to residents of Waverley Council on Saturday and Victoria has designated Waverley, Woollahra and the City of Sydney councils as “orange zones”, meaning residents arriving in Victoria must complete a travel declaration and COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival.
“That might get tightened if the NSW outbreak gets worse,” acting Victorian Premier James Merlino said.
In addition to the eastern suburbs cluster, investigations continue into a Baulkham Hills man’s infection. The case, which had a low viral load, was included in Friday’s numbers and exposure sites in Northmead and Castle Hill have been identified.
Yates Avenue Public School at Dundas Valley closed for in-person teaching on Friday after a number of its staff attended a COVID-19 exposure site.
Across the city, Bondi’s Moriah College said a parent had tested positive to COVID-19 but said NSW Health had determined there was “no direct exposure” to the school.
NSW Health’s sewage surveillance program detected fragments of the virus that causes COVID-19 at the Camellia pumping stations in western Sydney this week. However, health authorities said the detection could be attributed to known recovered cases in the area.