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Sydney locks down parts of city in race against outbreak of delta variant

Parts of Sydney went into lockdown starting June 25 as authorities struggle to contain a spike of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. (Video: Reuters)

SYDNEY — Sydney will go into a partial lockdown Friday as officials in Australia’s most populous city try to stamp out a growing outbreak of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

The new cluster, which began last week with an airport limousine driver, has expanded to 65 cases, with the number expected to rise. Contact tracers have plotted the virus’s path through venues that include a shopping mall, nail salons, hairdressers and cafes in the city’s center and eastern suburbs.

The New South Wales state government is hoping the week-long lockdown will act as a circuit breaker, avoiding the need for tougher restrictions.

Sydney enters ‘scariest’ phase of pandemic as delta variant spreads, leader says

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Friday that she would like to see the outbreak “end sooner rather than later.”

“But this is really to make sure that we can prevent further spread and prevent further dislocation,” she added.

Four local government areas within Sydney were due to enter a lockdown at 11:59 p.m. local time, with residents only allowed to leave home for reasons that include essential work, outdoor exercise in groups of fewer than 10, to seek medical care and to shop for groceries and other essential services.

Officials and scientists are especially troubled by the apparent ease with which the delta variant, first detected in India, passes from person to person.

Video footage at a shopping mall and in a cafe shows that the limo driver and people who became infected had only fleeting contact, which scientists say proves it is possible to catch the virus simply from sharing the same airspace as an infected person.

Some 900 customers visited one hairdresser during the period in which the virus might have been circulating, health officials said. At least three staff members and two clients have contracted the virus so far.

Australia’s slow vaccination rollout is hindering efforts to contain the virus’s spread. Only about 4 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and roughly a quarter have received one dose of either the Oxford-AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines — far below the rates in the United States, Canada or European countries.

AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine shortfall hobbles Australia’s rollout

Some epidemiologists are calling for Australia to rethink its rollout and — unlike countries where the virus is circulating widely — vaccinate its young people before it protects its old, because they are more likely to contract the virus in social settings and spread it to others.

“You go where you get the most juice for your squeeze, and that is the 40 percent of cases in the 20- to 39-year-olds,” Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist and member of the World Health Organization’s expert panel on covid-19, told state broadcaster ABC.

Medical experts also questioned the merit of a partial lockdown, given that the delta variant can spread rapidly. New York embraced block-by-block lockdowns last year. The Zip-code approach was also tried in Melbourne in July 2020, only to be replaced by an arduous months-long lockdown.

“The reality is the delta virus is different. It is being transmitted far more easily,” Omar Khorshid, president of the Australian Medical Association, told reporters. “Sydney has not faced this before and it means a different approach is required.”

He called for a lockdown of the entire city, saying the current approach was confusing, especially for people who worked in the city but lived outside it and could therefore carry the virus from their workplace to their families.

Unlike the United States and Europe, Australia has pursued a strategy of zero transmission. The low tolerance for even single-digit daily cases has left residents frequently caught in cycles of new restrictions every time a cluster emerges.

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