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Ships in the night: Vaccinated man infected taxi driver, left Delta to spread in Cairns

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Two Pfizer jabs saved a Queensland man from serious illness when COVID-19 struck. But his taxi driver had no such protection – and has now put Cairns and Yarrabah into lockdown.

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Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young today said genome sequencing had confirmed the infected taxi driver, a Kanimbla man in his 60s, caught the Delta variant from the marine pilot whose case was revealed last week.

The taxi driver, whose case was announced on Sunday morning, has now been flown to a Brisbane hospital for treatment. Anyone who caught taxis at various periods over the past 10 days – potentially hundreds of people, including those most at risk of COVID-19 – have now been ordered to isolate and get tested. Local shopping centres have also been listed as exposure sites.

Queensland Health suspect the marine pilot caught the virus on a passing ship, despite being fully vaccinated with Pfizer some months ago. They had thought he was only infectious from July 29, the day he flew from Brisbane to Cairns, two days before showing any symptoms.

The man had low levels of the virus when he tested positive, and it was thought the risk to the community was minimal, particularly given his family members were not infected. Hundreds of contacts were tested and cleared last week. Nonetheless, wastewater testing had shown viral fragments in and around Cairns, and Young was urging locals to get tested in the days before she learned of the taxi driver’s case and ordered a snap lockdown.

Today, it was confirmed the marine pilot infected the taxi driver who took him to Cairns Airport for his flight to Brisbane on July 26 – three days earlier than they originally thought he would have been infectious. This has extended the period of risk to the public, and has forced contact tracers to go back over the movements of both men, as Cairns and Yarrabah remain in lockdown for another two days as a precaution.

Young said contact tracing was based on the evidence available at the time, when “we hope we’ve got everyone, but we don’t know that we’ve got everyone”.

Vaccination remains the key to protecting people from the more contagious Delta variant. It prevents the most serious aspects of COVID-19 and, even if a fully-vaccinated person is infected, can reduce the risk of transmission.

However, the circumstances in Cairns are likely to be repeatedly more frequently as the vaccination rollout continues, particularly if governments ease restrictions at the same time, while the level of protection in some areas is patchy.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk today announced an expansion of Queensland’s vaccination program in an effort to get more people protected – and sooner.

As south-east Queensland emerged from lockdown on Sunday, and Cairns and Yarrabah went into lockdown, cases around the NSW border also put authorities on alert.

A Gold Coast case remains under investigation and Queensland Health is investigating any links to a case reported today across the border in Byron Bay.

Further south, Newcastle, Armidale and now Tamworth – all outside the NSW-Queensland border zone – have followed Greater Sydney into lockdown. There have also been positive wastewater detections in central western NSW.

NSW Health has alerted Queensland Health to a man in Byron Bay testing positive to COVID-19. He had been infectious in the community for some days and, according to one news report, had visited the Gold Coast.

Palaszczuk today said it was “alarming” the Delta variant had spread north from Greater Sydney but reassured Queenslanders the border controls were under review.

“If we have to go harder, we will,” Palaszczuk said, suggesting that could involve police “stopping everybody” rather than at random.

The Indooroopilly cluster appears to have been contained. Only four community-acquired cases were confirmed in Queensland today, all linked to the cluster (specifically Ironside State School and Brisbane Boys Grammar) and in home quarantine while infectious. A fifth case was today reported in a returned traveller in hotel quarantine.

While the south-east Queensland lockdown has been lifted, there are now 12,364 people in home quarantine – where some will remain for another fortnight.

In an effort to protect more Queenslanders, Palaszczuk today announced the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre would be used for mass vaccinations. People can make an appointment and have their parking validated.

Queensland is also opening up registrations from 16-59-year-olds, after yesterday encouraging teachers, early education workers, FIFO miners, and freight and distribution centre workers to join the priority queue.

After criticism of the slow rollout, and issues around communicating the risk, Palaszczuk made a point of saying that the Federal Government was still responsible for 70 per cent of the vaccination effort in Queensland.

Today, Queensland Health has started the advanced rollout of vaccinations to Indigenous communities on Cape York, having previously given protection to those in the Torres Strait due to fears COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, 14 First Nations people in Queensland have been infected.

The high rate of infection in Papua New Guinea led to fears vulnerable people in the far north were at grave risk. However, with cross-border boat movements still banned, it was air travellers who first carried COVID-19 from Papua New Guinea to Queensland, overwhelming the Cairns Hospital and prompting tighter international travel restrictions.

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