Australia scrambles to track Christmas coronavirus outbreak

Sydney: Australian health authorities say a new strain of the coronavirus in Sydney’s north most likely originated in the United States, but how it got from the airport to the community remains a puzzle.

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Australia had prided itself on a tough pandemic response including closing international borders and ordering lockdowns, resulting in a low mortality rate by global standards.

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But a week from Christmas Day a lengthy stretch without locally acquired infections ended when an airport driver and a couple – who had had no contact with each other – tested positive.

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Those cases have exploded into a cluster of at least 83, prompting a new lockdown in Sydney’s northern beachside suburbs and an investigation into whether and how the virus travelled from the airport 40km (25 miles) away.

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The authorities say the northeastern Sydney strain matches a positive test result of a woman in hotel quarantine who arrived from the United States, but how it crossed the city remains unknown.

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How was it discovered?

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After two weeks without a locally acquired coronavirus infection nationwide, a Sydney Airport transit driver tested positive on Dec. 16.

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Also that day, a couple tested positive in the city’s Northern Beaches local government area. They had not been in contact with the airport driver.

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By Dec. 21, there were 83 confirmed cases in the Northern Beaches, a community of 250,000 people sometimes jokingly called the “insular peninsula” due to a culture authorities hope will reduce wider transmission.

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“The peninsula is a very cohesive community that tends to keep to itself … and that is certainly … assisting in making sure that the Avalon outbreak is staying exactly where it is,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, naming the suburb at the centre of the outbreak.

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Most confirmed cases visited or had contact with someone who attended a Dec. 11 music event at Avalon Beach RSL Club, a pub run by the Returned and Services League, or a performance at Avalon Bowlo, a lawn bowls club, on Dec. 13. The authorities believe the virus spread through the community at these two events.

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How it returned to community

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Genome sequencing shows the Northern Beaches strain matches a strain found in a woman described as a returned traveller who arrived at Sydney Airport from Los Angeles Airport on Dec. 1, health officials say.

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Authorities still do not know how the virus travelled from the woman to the Northern Beaches because she was in 14-day hotel quarantine at the time of the concerts.

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The investigation will look into all contact with the woman in quarantine, including the possibility she touched the personal protective equipment (PPE) of a health worker.

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The virus may have entered the community via “someone who came through the usual path but happened to be at that exact time … exposed but not carrying a viral load that you could detect”, said Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University’s health school.

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What Australia is doing about it

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The NSW government has put the Northern Beaches into lockdown until 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday.

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The rest of Sydney’s five million people must limit visitors to 10. Entertainment venues have tighter limits on patron numbers and singing and dancing are banned.

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The state has asked people to wear masks indoors but stopped short of making mask-wearing mandatory.

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Australia’s seven other states and territories have reintroduced border closures, including road checkpoints, or mandatory quarantine for arrivals from NSW.

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Does it affect Christmas?

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The NSW government says it will make a decision on Dec. 23 about Christmas Day social distancing rules for the Northern Beaches and greater Sydney.

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Most Australian states have waited for several weeks without community transmission before relaxing border controls, making it unlikely interstate travel will resume by Dec. 25.

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