Australia records first Omicron community case, authorities hold nerve for now

The new case, a school student from Sydney, was the first confirmed Omicron infection of a person who had not travelled overseas. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australia on Friday (Dec 3) reported its first community transmission of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, but the authorities held steady on a plan to reopen the economy amid hopes it would prove to be milder than previous strains.

The new case, a school student from Sydney, was the first confirmed Omicron infection of a person who had not travelled overseas, a sign that the variant was now in the community, said the authorities of New South Wales (NSW) state.

But they refrained from changing course as the country's most populous state continues a staged reopening after the earlier, more virulent Delta strain resulted in a lockdown of more than four months.

"Transmission is always a concern, but we again need to keep it in perspective," NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters.

"Worldwide, there is no clarity around whether this particular variant is going to cause us anywhere near the problems that the earlier variants caused us," he said.

Australia now has nine confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, eight in NSW, where a third of the country's 25 million people live.

Although some states have tightened domestic border controls, the federal government has said it has no plans to return to the stop-start lockdowns that defined the country's pandemic response from the start.

The federal government, too, postponed by two weeks a plan to let foreign students and skilled migrants into the country.

Australians returning from southern Africa also must complete two weeks of hotel quarantine.

Asked if the federal government would stop targeting arrivals from southern Africa, now that the new variant was no longer limited to people who had been there, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said it "will continue to review the medical advice, but we follow it because it has kept Australia safe".

Meanwhile, chief medical officer Paul Kelly, the government's top health adviser, said the country would not recommend bringing forward vaccine booster shots, as other countries have done, since "there is no evidence to suggest that an earlier booster dose of the current Covid-19 vaccines will augment the protection against the Omicron variant".

Australia's aggressive Covid-19 response has helped it to avoid the high numbers of Covid-19 deaths recorded in many other countries, with about 212,000 cases and 2,000 deaths locally.

The country's remote Northern Territory, which is home to most of its indigenous population, recorded its first Covid-19 death, an indigenous woman in her 70s.

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