SYDNEY (AP) – Coronavirus cases rose across Australia on Wednesday as an epidemic of the omicron variant exploded, prompting Prime Minister Scott Morrison to schedule an emergency national cabinet meeting.
The wave has already swamped testing stations, prompted new vaccine mandates and prompted at least one state to cut back on elective surgeries.
New infections in Sydney and surrounding areas of New South Wales state soared to more than 11,000, from 6,000 a day earlier. Victoria state also reported a record 3,700 cases, up more than 1,000 from the previous record set on Tuesday.
Morrison said the country’s leaders would meet earlier than scheduled on Thursday.
“As omicron continues to move forward, we will see new pressures, but states and territories are working closely together on their plans to address these challenges,” Morrison told reporters.
He said he hoped the meeting would help give a clearer definition of what constituted close contact and what tests should be used in different circumstances as the number of cases skyrocketed.
Other states have also reported an increase in the number, with more than 1,500 new infections in Queensland, 1,400 in South Australia, 138 in the Australian Capital Territory and 55 in Tasmania. Queensland health officials said about 80% of cases were the omicron variant.
Neighboring New Zealand also reported its first case of possible community exposure to omicron, when a returning traveler tested positive after leaving quarantine. However, health officials said the traveler was not considered highly infectious and there was no evidence of community spread yet.
South Australia has announced it will place limits on elective surgeries and impose vaccine boosters for frontline health workers.
State Prime Minister Steven Marshall has said South Australia will no longer conduct screening tests for interstate travel because it does not have the capacity to do so.
“Omicron is moving too fast,” Marshall said, adding that resources should be focused on the “very imminent” increase in hospital admissions.
More than three-quarters of Australians are fully vaccinated, and it remains to be seen how deadly the latest outbreak will be.
Australia has so far avoided the worst devastation of the pandemic, reporting a total of 2,200 deaths from the virus among its population of 26 million.
New South Wales – Australia’s most populous state – on Wednesday reported three new virus deaths and 625 hospitalizations, including 61 intensive care patients. Victoria reported four new deaths and 397 hospitalizations, including 62 in intensive care.
Test centers have not been able to cope with increased demand.
Thousands of people across New South Wales have waited hours this week to be tested. Some were travelers who had to undergo a negative PCR test before arriving in Queensland.
But under pressure to relax that requirement, the Queensland Prime Minister said on Wednesday he would accept rapid antigen testing instead of PCR testing for travelers from interstate hot spots from January 1.
The outbreak was also contributing to a shortage of blood donations and an urgent appeal for donors to step up their efforts.
The epidemic-induced testing and quarantine requirements, combined with the holiday season, created a “perfect storm” of cancellations, said Cath Stone, head of the Lifeblood Red Cross donation center network .
“More than half of all appointments are untracked, which means we need more donors to roll up their sleeves and take the place of those who can’t give,” Stone said.
Associated press, Associated press