The Riverina is one of the areas likely to leave lockdown first, according to Deputy Premier John Barilaro, but no changes are coming until the current end of lockdown on September 10.
Mr Barilaro said vaccination rates won’t be one of the benchmarks used in that decision, but it will require that ‘a large footprint’ be free of active Covid cases for NSW Health and the State Government to feel comfortable releasing areas to lighter levels of restrictions.
He said the state is still favouring an ‘LGA by LGA’ approach to ending lockdowns, based on the case numbers and sewage detections in individual areas. The idea was tested previously, prior to the current lockdown extension, but Mr Barilaro said that with at least 65 per cent of the state having to be locked down, it didn’t make sense to start allowing any travel at this time.
His statement came as 51 cases were announced in the Western Local Health Area, including 33 in Dubbo, four in Bourke, five in Bathurst (all five are employees at the local correctional centre, but not inmates), and individual cases in communities such as Narromine and Brewarrina. Forbes, Orange and Parkes each recorded two cases.
“We expect September still will be a tough month with rising numbers,” said Mr Barilaro.
“Mid to late September, a lot of the vaccines kick in.”
Case numbers are expected to continue to rise through September and October, with health officials hopeful that the current surge in vaccination rates will help protect the population.
The State Government has said it will begin to focus more heavily on hospitalization and death rates, rather than case numbers, as the vaccines are expected to prevent some of the worst effects of the virus.
“I think the worst is still to come,” said Mr Barilaro on Monday.
To help boost confidence in an area’s ability to remain case-free and to exit lockdown, Mr Barilaro said the state may consider banning certain high-risk activities and gatherings, including community sports.
“We may look at those sort of large gatherings not returning [if that gives NSW Health confidence],” he said.
Meantime, teachers and students are expected to return to school on October 25, but the State Education Minister Sarah Mitchell has stated that it will be a condition of returning to school for teachers and staff to receive a Covid-19 vaccination.
Mr Barilaro said the education department’s position was clear, but there hadn’t yet been any discussion about the implications for teachers who refuse the jab.
“Teachers won’t be teaching in class on the 25th of October if they aren’t vaccinated… that’s absolutely clear,” he said, adding, “No one’s made any decisions about anyone losing their jobs, it’s just a requirement to teach on the 25th of October to be vaccinated.”
Students are expected to return to classes in a phased approach, with Kindergarten and Year 1 on October 25, followed a week later (November 1) by Years 2, 6 and 11. Remaining year levels will return on November 8.
Meanwhile, IOR Petroleum, South Gundagai, has been named as one of two venues of concern for Covid-19 after two truck drivers stopped in the district while potentially infectious on Wednesday August 25.
The drivers were asymptomatic and essential workers who undergo regular routine testing. They are now isolating outside of the Murrumbidgee Local Health District (MLHD).
Public Health advised there was minimal risk to the public at the IOR Petroleum stop as the drivers used contact free payment at the unstaffed fuel pump on the corner of Mount and Cross Streets, on August 25 at 4.30am.
MLHD also named Wagga Trucks on Hammond Avenue, Wagga Wagga, as the other location of concern.
The Public Health Unit made contact with everyone who attended this venue to assess risk for staff, and to determine if any had close contact with the case. SMS messages were sent to people who checked in with the QR code.
Anyone at Wagga Trucks on August 25 between 7.30am and 11am is considered a close contact and should get tested immediately and self-isolate for 14 days. This business has a Covid-19 business safety plan in place which has helped minimise the risk to patrons.
MLHD extended testing clinic hours at Gundagai on Saturday after the case exposures were announced.
MLHD confirmed all Covid-19 tests taken in Wagga and Gundagai on Saturday have returned a negative result.
312 people came forward for testing at the District’s testing clinics in Wagga and in Gundagai.
MLHD commended the businesses on their implementation of Covid-19 safe practices and minimising the risk of transmission to staff and patrons.
“We would like to thank everyone for coming forward so promptly for testing yesterday,” MLHD Covid Coordinator Emma Field said on Sunday.
“Our contact tracers were able to make contact quickly with everyone who checked in at the business because of the QR Code system, and people responded swiftly to the call to come forward for testing.”
Ms Field reminded members of the public of the importance of adhering to the Covid safe practices and business rules to protect the broader community.
“We are all impacted by these restrictions, but we do appeal to members of our community to keep with it; this is our strongest defence against the virus,” Ms Field said.
In total, some 1200 people were tested across the MLHD last week.
Meanwhile, following a Covid exposure at Temora last week, MLHD confirmed that a positive reading has been returned from the sewerage surveillance testing in Temora.
Further sampling will occur this week.
MLHD’s public health director Tracey Oakman asked anyone in that area with symptoms to get tested.
Mrs Oakman described the sewage testing as an early warning system
“People who have had Covid will continue shedding for four weeks, so they may not be infectious,” she said.
“It’s an alert to everyone that potentially there has been someone who has had Covid in the Temora area.”