Contact tracers are hunting for the source of a string of COVID-19 cases unknowingly spreading the virus among Sydney’s restaurants and pubs, as the government faces mounting pressure to tighten restrictions on the high risk venues.
The next several days will prove pivotal in determining the extent of the fallout from a busy weekend for three men aged in their 20s infectious with COVID-19 who visited 17 venues between them in Sydney’s inner-west, the CBD, the western suburbs and Newcastle.
NSW recorded 11 new COVID-19 cases in the 24 hours to 8pm on Thursday. It was a trickle compared with Victoria’s 450 cases and 11 deaths, taking the national toll to 266.
In Sydney and Newcastle, hundreds of diners, revellers and shoppers have been directed to self-isolate and watch for symptoms after potentially being exposed to one of the infectious men.
The most serious exposure risk was at Jambo Jambo African Restaurant in Glebe between 7pm and 8.30pm on July 31 where all present are considered to be close contacts of one of the men, and told to get tested even if they have no symptoms.
The willingness of all contacts to come forward for testing in line with NSW Health advice will be crucial for contact tracers to detect the extent of any spread and contain it.
NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said the main concern is how the man who attended the Glebe restaurant caught the virus. He is one of eight cases with no known links to clusters or confirmed cases this week – a sign the virus is spreading undetected.
“I’m extremely concerned about these cases,” Dr Chant said, “because I don’t know where they got [the virus] from and I don’t know what other chain of transmission we don’t know about.”
“That is the part that causes me the most anxiety,” she said.
The mystery cases have contact tracers stumped as they try to discover how they were infected and who else has been exposed.
One such case is a woman in her 60s from south-west Sydney who was reported on Friday.
Dr Chant was buoyed by the high numbers of people getting tested. A total of 27,937 tests were carried out in the 24 hours to 8pm on Thursday.
“If we don’t have the community coming forward for testing we can’t break those chains of transmission,” she said.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian this week urged the public to cut back on their socialising as NSW faces the next critical few weeks in its defence against the virus.
The message was aimed at young people in particular, with the 20 to 29-year-olds age group accounting for the largest proportion of transmissions.
There has been no suggestion the men broke any rules or flouted social distancing restrictions, and Dr Chant stressed the advice was “not about attributing blame”.
On Friday, acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the majority of deaths may be in the elderly, “but young people are getting infected, young people are transmitting the virus and young people sometimes are also experiencing the severe end of the spectrum of the disease.”
Earlier this week, Australia recorded its youngest COVID-19 death – a 33-year-old Victorian man.
Infectious diseases physician and professor at the Kirby Institute UNSW, Greg Dore, said the state government had the capacity to modify the community’s behaviour by closing high risk venues.
“A four-week closure of pubs, clubs, and restaurants, through to early spring, would be economically more advantageous than a longer closure due to rising infections, that could extend until summer,” Professor Dore said.
“We have benefited enormously from the excellence and commitment of NSW Health, but the increasing number of exposed venues and individuals undermines their capacity to test-trace-isolate our way out of the current renewed spread.”
Australian Medical Association (AMA) NSW president Dr Danielle McMullen said the state government must tighten restrictions on indoor gatherings at pubs, clubs and restaurants including limiting the size of groups and stricter enforcement of regulations.
“We’ve all walked past cafes and restaurants or pubs with crowded tables and people sitting close together,” Dr McMullen said.
“These are risky places because people are sitting for long periods of time together and may be drinking alcohol … We recognise that there is a balance between public health and the economic risk and health consequences of a shutdown or economic turndown but our first priority must be keeping people safe from COVID.”
Dr Chant said NSW Health has deemed restaurants, pubs and bars “high risk environments” for the spread of COVID-19 and the decision to introduce tougher restrictions was a matter for the government.
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Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.