19 August 2021

UPDATED: Low number of mystery cases offers hope, more business support coming

| Ian Bushnell and Genevieve Jacobs
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Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith at today’s briefing: “We’re not seeing a growing number of mystery cases over time.” Photos: Thomas Lucraft.

UPDATE 2:45 pm: The increase in ACT cases remains a concern, but the number giving health authorities heart that the lockdown is doing its job is the low number of mystery cases.

There are only nine mystery cases out of the total of 83 active cases, but five of them are new and investigations are at an early stage and may soon be resolved.

Of the 16 new cases confirmed today, 11 are linked.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen Smith said she expected the case numbers to go up and down over the next few days, particularly as there are households with members who have the virus.

“We know there are household members who have tested negative but will almost certainly at one point get the virus because we know how transmissible Delta is and how difficult it is to contain within a household even if people do their best to isolate within a household,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“Where we want to get to is a point when any new case has been in quarantine for the entire infectious period.

“What’s giving me confidence is that we’re continuing to identify the linkages between these cases. We’re not seeing a growing number of mystery cases over time.”

The ACT is also experiencing a lot of testing, and strong demand for vaccination, including among aged care workers where it has spiked to 66 per cent ahead of their 17 September deadline to receive at least one dose to be able to work in the sector.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr flagged more support for business and industry.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr also identified the number of mystery cases as a key factor.

“What worries us are mystery cases where we can’t link the chain of transmission,” he said.

Mr Barr said it was too early to say what the path out of lockdown looked like, but the difference this time around was the vaccines.

The goal was to get as many people vaccinated as possible over the next few months once supplies increased, he said.

Mr Barr has been talking to business and industry about charting a path toward an easing of restrictions, and his office has been working with the Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on more jointly funded support measures.

This includes an additional support package for the tourism, accommodation and hospitality industries, a potential extension of the ACT Government’s small business hardship scheme, establishing a business mental health support fund, and beginning work on a fast track infrastructure support program to support the recovery of the construction sector when it is safe to do.

The government has also taken heart from excellent levels of compliance from the community and strong engagement from businesses wanting to protect their workforce and customers, and to operate in a COVID-safe way.

Mr Barr said the focus in the coming weeks would be on changes that may be implemented as case numbers hopefully move to zero.

“That’s the sort of engagement we are having,” he said. “What are the small measured and gradual steps we can take?”

In retail that would be things such as contactless delivery and click and collect.

“We’re working in detail on those, so when case numbers allow, we can bring that sort of change in,” he said.

“What people can look to is the effectiveness of the lockdown in bringing down the number of new cases each day and the effectiveness of our contract tracers to ensure that we know where people are getting infected.”

UPDATED 12.30 pm: Contact tracing has linked all but nine of the ACT’s 83 active cases of COVID-19 as 16 new diagnoses were announced today. One of those cases is in a childcare centre.

Speaking at today’s press briefing, Chief Minister Andrew Barr said there are no easy choices dealing with the virus.

“We either stop this virus now or we live like Sydney for the rest of this year. These are the choices we face,” he said.

“The lockdown needs to work; the restrictions need to stay for the time being. This is incredibly tough, I know. We will continue to work with business and community to chart a path forward.”

He said the ACT Government continues to have faith that the lockdown and contact tracing efforts would stop uncontrolled community transmission but warned about the two-week incubation period.

“We don’t want to live like Sydney, two weeks into a lockdown with the virus seeding out into the country and into New Zealand,” the Chief Minister said.

He welcomed the extended NSW regional lockdown and the intention to bring regional NSW infections down to zero. Extensive cross-border compliance is being carried out by the NSW and ACT police, but he said a hard border would not be possible.

“There is no world in which you can seal Canberra up in a bubble … it’s false hope and it can’t be delivered,” Mr Barr said, “although a ring of steel around Sydney might have contained the virus there.”

READ MORE Queanbeyan records two COVID cases, NSW lockdown extended

There were few cases where people had actively flouted lockdown restrictions in Canberra and the Chief Minister said that compliance had been more a matter of reminders to people about their obligations. Police and other government authorities yesterday conducted 200 personal quarantine checks, 450 traffic stops and issued five directions to leave and four cautions.

Canberrans have set another record of 8796 tests yesterday, bringing the total number of tests since lockdown to 33,000, around 8 per cent of the ACT community. Mr Barr said that the very high level of testing was giving health authorities excellent surveillance over the virus in the city.

There are 21,330 people in quarantine and now more than 240 exposure sites listed on the Government’s website. This now includes several bus routes and exposures on light rail. MyWay and Check In CBR data is currently being used to trace all passengers using those services.

He added that the Government continues to work with business and industry associations on COVID-19 safe arrangements, including for construction, but described these as gradual, measured and safe steps.

“Stopping the progress of the virus is our priority this week,” Mr Barr said. “We simply have to reduce the transmission potential in our community.”

Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Vanessa Johnson said that none of the current active cases have been hospitalised but confirmed that many of the ACT cases are among younger people: 43 per cent are people under 17 and only 10 per cent of cases are among the elderly.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said that considerable effort is being put into making testing as efficient as possible across the city as a whole although there’s an anticipated new peak as many contacts reach day five since their exposure. The government is endeavouring to monitor demand and provide regular updates.

Ms Stephen-Smith particularly thanked Capital Pathology, who have operated their own centres and collaborated with the government on opening the Gold Creek, Erindale and Kambah sites.

However, the Weston Creek Walk-in Centre will be closed to the general public between 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm today for targeted testing as the government diverts close contacts from specific sites.

“We are strengthening our processes and traffic flow and that’s enabling us to divert demand across sites. We are learning every day,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

UPDATED 11:50 am: ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has announced a further 16 cases in the ACT, bringing the total number of active cases in the Territory to 83.

Eleven are linked to existing cases and nine are under investigation.

One case is linked to a childcare centre and testing has been put in place for family and staff.

Speaking at the daily COVID-19 briefing, Mr Barr said 8796 tests were conducted in the ACT yesterday, another record in the ACT.

Around 33,000 tests have been conducted since the lockdown commenced.

Earlier this morning, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian reported another record of 681 diagnoses and one more death.

Of these locally acquired cases, 170 are linked to a known case or cluster – 149 are household contacts and 21 are close contacts. The source of infection for 511 cases is under investigation.

9:00 am: A high-rise residential tower, gym, takeaway food store and a number of bus and light rail routes are among 24 new close contact exposure sites across Canberra.

The freshly updated list on the ACT Health COVID-19 website comes as Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith urged secondary contacts not to get tested even though testing wait times are starting to ease.

The six new sites originally reported this morning are Grand Central Towers’ communal pool area in Phillip; Iskia Athletic Club in Campbell; The Rehabilitation Specialists in Fyshwick; Engineering House, tenancy 7/8, on level 2 in Barton; The Bucket Warehouse in Mitchell; and Subway in Dickson.

They are all from last week and go back to Monday.

The list was later updated to include peak hour transport journeys, including light rail between Dickson and Gungahlin, and various bus routes.

Updates also cover the Goodstart Early Learning Centre in a Turner, the Ginninderra Medical and Dental Centre, and the Greenway Views aged care facility where an aged care worker tested positive.

There are 11 new casual contact sites including a bus route, takeaway food stores and a gym.

Check the full list for locations and detailed exposure times.

Ms Stephen-Smith told the ABC this morning that the lines at testing sites appeared to be quieter this morning but still said people who were secondary contacts, someone who is a close contact of close contact and not at an exposure site, did not have to get tested.

She said, for example, that some parents of students at the school exposure sites did not have to get tested unless their child had tested positive for the virus.

However, the whole household still had to quarantine.

ACT Health was clarifying the definition of a secondary contact so people would be in no doubt.

Ms Stephen-Smith said that at about 7:15 pm last night, drive-through testing sites had less than an hour wait and by 9:00 pm the lines had been cleared.

She said the Inner North Walk-in Centre would be open today but Canberra Health Services was looking at scaling back non-urgent outpatient and community services and elective surgery to cope with the strain on resources as hundreds of staff are in quarantine.

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I think the people who are placing the exposure sites on the map have lost the plot.

According to:

When I look at the exposure sites in Greenway, there is one appearing between Lake Tuggeranong College and the bus Interchange (around where Subway is). When I click on it, the information claims it is Bunnings.

Correct street, but out by one km.

I hope the rest of the ACT government’s COVID response is being performed with more care and accuracy.

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