SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The Australian authorities on Tuesday (Aug 17) warned Sydney residents to brace themselves for a surge in Covid-19 cases in the coming weeks, urging people to get vaccinated to avoid more hospitalisations and deaths as daily infections hovered near record levels.
Australia, once a world leader in curtailing Covid-19, is struggling to suppress a third wave of infections driven by the highly infectious Delta variant despite locking down more than half its population.
New South Wales (NSW) state, whose capital Sydney is the epicentre of the latest outbreak, reported 452 cases in the past 24 hours, the third-biggest one-day jump, and one new death.
"We envisage that case numbers in the next two or three weeks will bounce around and are likely to rise substantially," New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney, the state capital.
Sydney has toughened lockdown rules, including setting up roadblocks in parts of the city, and has hiked fines amid reports of people flouting strict stay-at-home orders.
Economists fear the lockdowns may drive the country's A$2 trillion (S$1.98 trillion) economy into a second recession in as many years, although Australia's central bank stands ready to take policy action, minutes from its August meeting showed on Tuesday.
In Sydney's south, 80 medical staff were forced into isolation at a local hospital after several cases of Covid-19 were found in an oncology ward, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said, noting reports of ambulances queuing to access care in the city's west.
"There's no question that the hospital system is under enormous pressure across New South Wales," Hazzard said.
But the strict curbs, now in their eighth week, have failed to rein in the Delta outbreak.
A case was detected as far away as Broken Hill, a mining town more than 900km north-west of Sydney deep in Australia's outback, as the virus spreads to more regional centres, raising fears of wider outbreaks.
The country is racing to speed up its sluggish vaccination rollout, with only about 26% of Australians fully vaccinated.
With no flattening of the curve in sight, the chances of restrictions ending on Aug 28 in Sydney appears highly unlikely, with some economists predicting a second recession in Australia in as many years due to the lockdowns.
The highly infectious Delta strain has now plunged more than half of Australia's 25 million population under strict stay-at-home restrictions.
Sydney and Melbourne, its largest cities, and capital Canberra are in a weeks-long lockdown while a snap three-day lockdown was enforced on Monday in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, after one new case.
Ms Berejiklian urged people to get inoculated faster to push the state's percentage of fully vaccinated adults from about 27 per cent to 70 per cent, when "life will be much freer than what it is today".
She said: "Does it mean we live completely freely? No. But does it mean we'll live more freely than we do today? Absolutely."
A total of 57 people, most of them unvaccinated, have died in the latest outbreak in Sydney since July 11. There were no Covid-19-related deaths in Australia during 2021 until then.
Despite the recent Delta outbreaks, Australia's coronavirus numbers are well below that in many other countries in the developed world, with just over 40,000 cases and 967 deaths, but its vaccination figures are among the lowest.
Officials have been looking to ramp up the roll-out by procuring emergency vaccine supplies from abroad and expect the pace of inoculations to pick up once more supplies arrive from October.
In Melbourne, the capital of Victoria state, 24 new local cases were detected on Tuesday, the first day after officials reinstated a night curfew and extended a hard lockdown until Sept 2. Twenty-two cases were reported on Monday.