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Two clusters, 10 new cases - response 'in overdrive' to prevent state-wide disaster

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With 10 new cases of COVID-19 overnight, some beyond locked-down Brisbane, authorities have gone “into overdrive” to prevent a statewide disaster.

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Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk today said Brisbane’s three-day lockdown had become a “day-by-day proposition” as Queensland Health sought to connect all cases and test enough people to rule out other outbreaks.

Masks have been mandated for all of Queensland and authorities will have to make a tough call on whether to extend travel restrictions for the Easter and school holidays.

Palaszczuk said contact tracers had gone “into overdrive” as the number of cases, and venues subject to a public health alert, continued to increase. She said the next two days would be “critical”.

“Everyone’s worried, everyone’s worried, but the good news is that – so far, so good – that they are linked,” Palaszczuk said.

The last lockdown was sparked by a cluster involving the Hotel Grand Chancellor and Princess Alexandra Hospital, where a doctor was infected assessing a COVID-19 patient who had caught the UK variant overseas and spread it to another guest in quarantine. That outbreak was thought to have been kept to three cases, but has quietly kept spreading in Brisbane’s north and now stands at up to 10 cases.

A second cluster revolves around a PA Hospital nurse who unknowingly infected her sister with the UK variant, before they both went to a hen’s party in Byron Bay where five other party-goers were infected. One of those infected subsequently went to Toowoomba, another to Hervey Bay, while a male entertainer returned to working as a tradie on the Gold Coast – including, briefly, at an aged care home where all residents had fortunately been vaccinated.

That second cluster now has eight cases, including the returned overseas traveller found to have the same genome. However, there may still be missing links, as the nurse had not treated the patient (her COVID-19 work was before the traveller arrived, and she had previously been on leave for a month).

The nurse, like the doctor beforehand, had not been vaccinated against COVID-19, however authorities have denied that was a mistake. From tomorrow, only vaccinated hospital staff will be allowed to treat COVID-19 patients. There are currently 78 COVID-19 patients in hospital.

Another two cases were confirmed overnight in returned travellers, both of whom had come into Queensland via Papua New Guinea. The surge in PNG patients in Queensland hospitals in recent weeks has required extra resources, adding to the number of staff having to be vaccinated. Queensland has halved its intake of international travellers while it responds to the clusters.

Another case is also linked to one of the clusters, believed to be a close contact of a known case, and Palaszczuk warned there would “probably” be more cases confirmed this week.

There are still long queues for testing clinics, with 14,589 tests done yesterday alone.

Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young today said the case of the nurse came as “a little bit of a surprise” because it was not connected to the first cluster. But Young said the nurse had followed protocols at work – she was due to get her vaccination this week –and it was not yet clear how she was infected by the traveller with the UK variant.

“We do know she has exactly the same genome (but) we can’t find the epidemiological link at this stage,” Young said.

Young said that contact-tracing had so far linked all cases but some of those infected, including the party-goers, had been active in the community or travelled to other regions of Queensland. NSW Health is following up the potential for the virus to have spread in Byron Bay, and scores of people have been ordered into isolation.

“We’ve had a lot of people now out in the community infectious,” Young said, adding that there was no evidence that a man from the other cluster had spread the virus while in Gladstone for three days.

Defending the rollout of vaccinations to hospital staff, Young said it coincided with a surge in patients from PNG and supply issues with the vaccines. Only now is there a “critical mass” of vaccinated staff to treat COVID-19 patients to justify a mandate.

Health Minister Yvette D’Ath and Palaszczuk also defended the pace of the vaccination rollout.

Other states have imposed travel restrictions on greater Brisbane, while the Northern Territory – with a vulnerable indigenous population – has also pre-emptively declared Toowoomba a hotspot. There is one case in Toowoomba, from the Byron Bay party, but no evidence of local transmission there.

Police Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski warned greater Brisbane residents not to leave their homes or travel for non-prescribed reasons during the lockdown. He said the level of compliance had so far been “extraordinary” with no parties or breaches, and only one arrest, someone accused of criminal offences who allegedly coughed on police.

Gollschewski acknowledged the Easter holidays raised the prospect of more people travelling further afield but said “there’s no ring of steel around Brisbane at this stage”. The lockdown is currently due to end at 5pm on Thursday.

The latest list of venues subject to a public health alert is here: https://www.qld.gov.au/health/conditions/health-alerts/coronavirus-covid-19/current-status/contact-tracing

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