COVID-19 infections linger near record levels in Australia's Victoria

FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a protective face mask walks along a deserted city bridge during morning commute hours on the first day of a lockdown as the state of Victoria looks to curb the spread of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders//File Photo

SYDNEY (Reuters) – COVID-19 cases in Australia’s Victoria hovered near record levels on Friday, even as authorities look set to lift lockdown restrictions next week in Melbourne, the state capital, as the state nears a key vaccination milestone.

A total of 2,179 new locally acquired cases were reported in Victoria, the majority in Melbourne, down from a record 2,297 a day earlier. State Premier Daniel Andrews has said some curbs will ease next week as Victoria’s double-dose vaccination levels race towards the 70% mark from 63% now.

Australia had stayed largely virus-free for most of this year until a third wave of infections fuelled by the fast-moving Delta variant spread across its southeast from late June, forcing a months-long lockdown in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Canberra, the national capital, on Friday exited its more than two-month lockdown, allowing cafes, pubs and gyms to reopen with strict social distancing rules.

Sydney lifted its stay-home orders earlier this week and the city’s 5 million residents could enjoy more freedoms from Monday, as double-dose vaccination rates are expected to top 80% over the weekend – the level at which officials have promised to relax more restrictions.

However, travel to regional areas from Greater Sydney will be delayed until Nov. 1 due to lower vaccination rates there versus Sydney, New South Wales Deputy Premier Paul Toole told radio station 2GB on Friday.

Daily infections in New South Wales eased further to 399 from 406 on Thursday, well down from the state’s pandemic high of 1,599 in early September.

The federal government has been pressing states to reopen their borders but some virus-free states have said they may delay reopening plans amid concerns that a rapid reopening could overwhelm their health systems.

The country’s overall coronavirus numbers are still relatively low, with some 139,000 cases and 1,506 deaths.

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