Australia’s largest state, New South Wales (NSW), has announced its highest number of new Covid-19 cases in three months, with local officials attributing the rise to an outbreak of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
The latest outbreak comes as multiple governments across Australia are moving to relax Covid-19 restrictions to allow greater freedom of movement for citizens despite the rise in infections in NSW.
NSW recorded 1,360 new cases Wednesday, including 110 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.
In a press conference Wednesday, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said Omicron was “driving that uptick” and said cases in the state could rise as high as 25,000 a day by the end of January if the current trend continued.
“Every two to three days we are seeing a very big increase, in fact a doubling of people that are getting the virus. We are therefore on alert and cautious,” he said.
The new outbreak hasn’t delayed the removal of Covid-19 restrictions in the state. From December 15, unvaccinated people in NSW will be allowed many of the same freedoms as those who have had their shots, with masks now only mandated on public transport, planes and airports.
Density restrictions have been lifted and QR check-in codes are only required in a small number of locations, including hospitals and gyms.
Australia put in place some of the world’s toughest restrictions after the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020, including closing its borders to almost all travelers and using lockdowns and mandatory quarantine to pursue a policy of zero infections.
But the arrival of the easily transmissible Delta variant in mid-2021, as well as general fatigue with the tough measures, led the government to move toward a policy of living with the virus and focusing on high vaccination rates.
NSW State Premier Dominic Perrottet defended the easing of restrictions on Wednesday. “We are continuing to live alongside the virus and take personal responsibility… can we please shift the focus from daily case numbers to ICU numbers and hospitalizations?” Perrottet said.
According to NSW Health, there are currently 166 Covid-19 cases in hospital, with 24 people in intensive care.
Australia has one of the highest Covid-19 vaccination rates in the world, with almost 90% of the population over 16 receiving two doses of an approved drug.
The high vaccination rate has led Australia to begin to relax its internal border, which have kept multiple states almost entirely protected from Covid-19 infections for months.
The southern state of Tasmania reopened to the rest of the country on Wednesday, after its double vaccination rate reached more than 90% of citizens above the age of 16.
In a statement Tuesday, Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein said his government had taken a “cautious and responsible path to reopening.”
“We have one of the highest vaccination rates on the planet and my clear message to Tasmanians is – we are ready,” he said.
Only people who have fully vaccinated will be allowed to come to the state, and anyone from a high-risk area will need to provide a negative Covid-19 test.
It comes just a few days after Queensland removed border restrictions on December 13, allowing fully vaccinated Australian to enter the state from NSW or Victoria for the first time in months.