© Reuters. PHOTO: Medical worker holds a tray of blood antibody tests at a pre-coronavirus test facility (COVID-19) as countries react to a new variant of the coronavirus, Omicron, in front of an international terminal at Sydney Airport and
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia saw another rise in COVID-19 infection on Tuesday as the outbreak of the highly contagious Omicron variant disrupted the gradual reopening of the economy as heads of state quarreled over domestic border controls.
The three most populous states, New South Wales (NSW), Victoria and Queensland, reported just under 10,000 new cases between them the day before, putting the country on track to eclipse a record 10,186 cases from the previous day.
Five deaths from COVID-19 have been reported, although authorities have not specified whether any are linked to the Omicron variant.
The other five states and territories in the country, which have also experienced a virus outbreak, have not yet released figures.
The Omicron variant, which medical experts say is transmissible but less virulent than previous strains, began spreading in Australia just as the country began its plan to reopen after nearly two years of shutdown and closure.
With a resurgence in the number of cases – despite a vaccination rate of more than 90% for Australians over the age of 16 – the country’s leaders have introduced some crackdown measures such as mandatory wearing of masks and reporting QR codes in public places.
But a growing number of cases have led to mandatory self-isolation for thousands of workers in the hospitality, entertainment and airlines sectors – the sectors hardest hit by isolation – resulting in canceled theater performances, closed restaurants and delayed flights.
The new epidemic has also spurred the continuation of an unstable domestic policy that has defined much of the pandemic as some states are resisting calls to remove internal border controls.
NSW, home of Sydney and a third of Australia’s 25-million population, has called on neighboring Queensland to move from mandatory clinical testing to rapid on-site antigen testing for people traveling to the popular tourist country after complaints of hours of waiting.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said a quarter of PCR tests in his state were “tourism tests,” causing tremendous health system pressure, extraordinarily long queues of testing, and waiting times for results, sometimes days.
In one case, a testing clinic in Sydney sent inaccurate negative test results to about 1,400 people. Hazzard said the problem is the result of “human error, and when people are under pressure, human error is more common.”
Queensland has promised to review its border testing rules from Jan. 1, but Hazzard has called on Queensland to drop the rules immediately.
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath did not respond to Hazzard’s comments about border testing at a news conference, but said the state would remove another test rule for interstate arrivals: people arriving in the state will no longer have to undergo a five-day virus test upon arrival.
Australia’s international border is still closed, but Australian citizens can return without mandatory hotel quarantine, and the country has said it will allow certain skilled workers and foreign students to enter.
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