The Covid variant that ravaged India has been detected among the latest cases in Victoria, as the Health Minister confirmed despite just four new positives among 49,439 tests in the past 24 hours lockdown would continue.
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A new Covid variant has been discovered in Victoria among the latest positive cases, health officials revealed on Friday morning.
The highly infectious Delta strain — that ravaged India — has been detected among the four cases in the past 24 hours.
Chief health officer Brett Sutton said: “It has not been linked to any sequence cases across Australia from hotel quarantine or anywhere else that it is not linked in Victoria or any other jurisdiction.
“It is a concern that it is not linked to other cases but we are chasing down all those primary case contacts for that family and looking into where it might have been acquired.”
Health Minister Martin Foley revealed the four new cases were made up of three members of a family linked to the West Melbourne outbreak — two parents, and a child.
The fourth positive result related to another child.
Mr Sutton said genomic sequencing had come back on two of the West Melbourne cases, identifying a new variant that was unrelated to all cases.
Mr Foley said: “These new cases highlight the efforts that Victorians have put in to keep ahead of this but it is not over.
“We are working day in and day out to make sure we overcome this virus.
“Everybody knows it is hard work, that it is important work if we’re to get on top of this virus.”
The West Melbourne family travelled to Jervis Bay in NSW, Mr Sutton said.
He added: “It is a concern that it is not linked to other cases but we are chasing down all those primary case contacts for that family and looking into where it might have been acquired.”
The active number of cases linked to clusters across Melbourne has grown to 64.
‘FLEETING’ TRANSMISSION CASES FALSE POSITIVES
On Thursday night it was revealed two “fleeting” transmission cases partially used to justify Victoria’s extended lockdown were false positives with the state government now under increasing pressure to publicly release its health advice.
An expert panel on Thursday ruled the cases — a woman who was said to have caught the virus at a display home in Mickleham and a man allegedly infected while dining outdoors at the Brighton Beach Hotel — were “false positives”.
Acting Premier James Merlino admitted on Friday morning that he only learned of the false positive cases overnight on Thursday, after the extended lockdown was announced.
He refused to answer further questions on the timeline of when the government was told by health authorities about the cases.
Two cases acquired overseas were also added, taking the number of active cases to 72.
It takes the number of cases in this outbreak to 64.
When asked if Melbourne’s extended lockdown would be cut short because of the false positive results, Mr Merlino said: “Our answer on that hasn’t changed and nor should it.
“It is absolutely based on public health advice and that is assessed day-by-day, hour-by-hour.
“The proposition put forward by public health was that we needed this further seven day period for greater Melbourne to absolutely run this thing to the ground. That remains the case.”
He continued: “These false cases are rare, they do happen. There has been a number of other cases in this outbreak where we have seen fleeting transmission and public health will go through that detail later today.”
Mr Merlino could not say how many people have been released from quarantine because of the false positive news.
When asked if the extended lockdown may be cut short, Mr Merlino said: “As I said when we announced the second period of lockdown, the further seven days for greater Melbourne, my expectation is next week I will be in a position, based on public health advice, to announce further easings in regional Victoria and some careful easing of restrictions in Melbourne.”
Mr Merlino welcomed the federal government’s $500 bonus for some Victorian workers unable to work because of the state government’s lockdown, and the green light on a special quarantine facility being built in Victoria.
“Our strong argument has been we must have a Howard Springs-like alternative, a purpose-built quarantine facility for our highest risk individuals,” he said.
“That’s exactly what we will deliver.”
Where it would be built has yet to be decided, he added.
“The hasn’t indicated and we have not yet landed on exactly which site,” Mr Merlino said.
“But either one will work. Our preference is Mickleham. We are very happy to have it at the Avalon site as well. It will work equally well there.”
WEIMAR SORRY FOR INFLAMMATORY LANGUAGE
COVID-19 testing commander Jeroen Weimar has apologised if the state government’s language about new cases and fleeting contacts were “inflammatory”.
“I apologise if people think I am being inflammatory,” Mr Weimar said.
He said the aim of the lockdown was to eliminate locally acquired cases.
“We do not want to see Covid running around the community,” he said.
“Our target is to get back to zero community transmission.”
Mr Weimar said an expert review panel probed the two false positive cases late Thursday night before confirming they were negative.
“Two of the 60 odd positive cases have now been reviewed and retested a number of times,” Mr Weimar said on 3AW.
“They come off our numbers today which is a bit of good news.”
Mr Weimar said he expected the number of exposure sites to decline “in the coming days”.
“We’re getting onto those day 13 tests for the early cases in this outbreak,” Mr Weimar said.
“As we start to remove primary close contacts, as we start to re-roll up those exposure sites, you will start to see them go down over the coming days.
The list of public exposure sites currently lists more than 370 risk locations.
Mr Weimar’s comments follow health official warnings that recent infections showed the danger posed by the Indian super-strain circulating across Melbourne.
“What we are seeing now clearly is people who are brushing past each other in a small shop, they are going to a display home, they are looking at phones in a Telstra shop – they don’t know each other’s names and that is very different from where we have been,” Mr Weimar said on Tuesday.
STATE CALLS FOR MORE VACCINE ALLOCATION
The state government has asked the Commonwealth to double its vaccine allocation as demand for the jab soars.
Mr Merlino said on Friday the Commonwealth had indicated it would do all it could to fulfil the request.
Victoria has asked for an immediate doubling of primary care AstraZeneca allocations to Victorian GPs for at least the next four weeks.
It also wants an increase of Pfizer allocations, currently about 70,000 a week, to 120,000 doses by July.
The government has not requested additional AstraZeneca allocations at this stage.
But it expects that doubling the allocation to primary care would absorb the current demand and allow Victoria to focus on Pfizer administration, second doses of AstraZeneca, and a modest number of first dose AstraZeneca.
Demand for the vaccine has soared as a result of the latest outbreak.
Mr Merlino insisted on Friday morning that the state government also had to store adequate supplies to administer second doses to Victorians.
This is causing growing frustration within the federal government, which has designed the rollout so that the Commonwealth is responsible for maintaining adequate supplies to cover second doses.
Sources involved in the rollout said Victoria’s insistence on stockpiling doses was reducing the number available to be administered now.
LINGERING CASES A ‘CONCERN’
On Friday morning, health authorities remained concerned about lingering Covid cases contracted through “stranger-to-stranger” transmission despite the two false positive cases.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said public health teams were double-checking information about how the remaining eight cases could have contracted the Indian virus variant without coming into direct contact with one another.
“Two fewer positive cases is welcome news but we still have a further eight instances of transmission through passing contact between people who have not directly interacted with each other,” the spokeswoman said.
“That’s the one in 10 we remain concerned about.”
The spokeswoman said public health teams were working to track and contain community spread after the virus spread into the community out of several known risk sites.
“There are still five exposure sites where this has spread into the community through people who don’t know each other, where there is no record of direct interaction, and we need to be sure we have all those cases fully contained,” she said.
“We know that this variant is 50 per cent more infectious than what we were dealing with last year, and we will continue to follow the health advice to ensure we can run this outbreak to the ground.”
The eight stranger-to-stranger transmissions are still being investigated by contact tracers.
One case was identified from the Telstra store at the Clarendon Centre South Shopping Centre in South Melbourne, two cases from JMD Grocers and Sweets in Epping and two cases from the Doctors on Broadway in Reservoir.
Two more cases were transmitted at the Woolworths in the Epping North Shopping Centre, and another case at Craigieburn Central Shopping Centre.
FALSE POSITIVES ‘ALARMING’: KENNETT
Former premier Jeff Kennett said the false positives had needlessly alarmed communities.
“Another Fawlty Towers example of failure,” he said. “While thousands of employees stood down. Tragic.”
Victoria recorded just three new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, with each identified as a primary close contact, meaning all had been in isolation during their infectious period.
The government repeatedly said last week its decision to plunge the state into another lockdown was based on public health advice, but officials have come under fire for scaremongering about the risks of Covid-19 variants.
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien on Thursday called for the government to urgently release that health advice so Victorians could see the evidence for themselves.
“It’s the least we’re entitled to,” he said.
“We’re seeing our lives put on hold. We’re seeing our lives locked down and the government will not even release the public health advice.”
Mr O’Brien backed comments from leading epidemiologists who have raised concerns over “apocalyptic” language used by the government, which he claimed had scared Victorians.
“That’s the last thing we need at the moment. We need Victorians to be calm. We don’t need government officials trying to amp up their language and scare people,” he said.
The false positives have renewed questions about whether the B1617.1 or “Kappa” strain at the centre of Melbourne’s current outbreak is moving as fast as first predicted by chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton.
Referring to it as an “absolute beast”, Prof Sutton – who was absent from Thursday’s press conference – claimed it was in the “measles category of infectiousness”.
But measles, thought to boast a reproduction number of between 12 and 18, is significantly more infectious.
Deputy chief health officer Professor Allen Cheng, who moved to clarify Prof Sutton’s comments, said due to strict limits of movement, the current virus had been predicted as having an effective reproduction number of about 0.069 by national modelling experts.
“I think it’s not really controversial to say that most of these variants have been shown to be more infectious (than the virus version which hit Melbourne in 2020),” Prof Cheng said.
But La Trobe University associate professor in epidemiology Prof Hassan Vally said it was important to put any fear and anxiety into perspective.
“I think we have to be careful and measured with our use of language when it comes to the situation in Victoria,” he said.
“It’s certainly true that we are facing a different variant in this cluster that has been reported to be more infectious than other strains.
“However, we are still facing the same virus and it still behaves in a similar way in all other respects to the original strain that emerged in 2020.”
Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said little was known about the Kappa variant but it was “definitely something to be worried about”.
“We do not have a precise quantisation of transmissibility for Kappa, as it is far less well studied than Delta (the other main Indian variant), but it has mutations that may make it more transmissible, and the communications from the Victorian chief health officer suggest their data are very worrying,” she said.
PUSH TO MOVE QUEEN’S BIRTHDAY TO SAVE REGIONAL VIC ECONOMY
Regional councils and tourism bodies are calling for the Queen’s Birthday public holiday to be moved if Melburnians remain in Covid lockdown.
Indigo Shire Mayor Jenny O’Connor said the region’s tourism market was based on travellers from Melbourne and a loss of city visitors would hurt trade over the long weekend.
Now that regional Victoria has “reopened”, Cr O’Connor said she welcomed the opportunity to move the long weekend, or create another stimulus long weekend later in the year, when Melbourne people could visit.
Read the full story
DEAL FINALLY DONE FOR VITAL QUARANTINE CAMP
A deal has been done to build a village-style quarantine facility in Victoria, with Scott Morrison agreeing to help bankroll the long-awaited alternative to the state’s problem-plagued hotel system.
The state-run facility, which is set to be based near Avalon airport, is expected to cost at least $200m to build and could be open to overseas arrivals by the end of the year.
The Prime Minister handed a memorandum of understanding to Acting Premier James Merlino this week to confirm his support for the quarantine centre.
Read the full story.
PHARMACISTS BEG TO JOIN VACCINE ROLLOUT
Pharmacists are being forced to turn away people showing up for the coronavirus vaccine as they cry out to join the rollout in Victoria.
More than 800 pharmacies statewide have indicated they’re ready to begin giving the jab.
But they have no idea when — or if — they will start getting supplies, despite the federal government planning to include them in the rollout from last month.
Read the full story.