SYDNEY, DECEMBER 29
Australia's COVID-19 infections surged to a fresh record on Wednesday due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, overwhelming testing facilities in the country's most populous state.
The crush at testing facilities in New South Wales, home to Australia's largest city, Sydney, has been partly blamed on neighbouring state Queensland requiring interstate tourists to return a negative PCR test result before arriving.
Queensland's so-called "tourism tests came under severe criticism from New South Wales after holiday travellers crowded its testing hubs, causing delays in results of several days.
Queensland authorities will now relax requirements for interstate travellers with domestic arrivals needing only a negative rapid antigen test result to gain entry from Jan. 1 rather than the PCR test, state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Wednesday.
Australia is in the grip of an Omicron outbreak but authorities have so far ruled out lockdowns, urging people to focus on patients admitted to hospitals. Health officials will also narrow the wait time for booster shots to four months from Jan. 4 and reinstated some curbs, including mandatory mask-wearing at indoor venues, to limit the virus spread.
The number of people in hospitals is creeping up but still off the peak of the Delta wave.
Australia on Wednesday reported a record 16,500 cases as NSW and Victoria, home to more than half of Australia's near 26 million people, clocked their biggest daily rise in infections, eclipsing the previous high of around 11,300 on Tuesday.
Daily cases in NSW, the worst-hit state from the Omicron variant, nearly doubled to 11,201 versus 6,062 on Tuesday, while cases in Victoria jumped more than 1,000 to 3,776. South Australia registered 1,471 cases, a new pandemic high. Other states have not reported daily numbers yet.
Despite the Omicron and Delta waves, Australia's COVID-19 numbers are still among the lowest in the world with about 338,200 cases and 2,210 deaths, thanks to strict social distancing rules and tough border restrictions. But most states have now begun to live with the virus after higher inoculation levels.