How a COVID-19 outbreak changed Sydney and the key moments that led to the lifting of the lockdown

Four months ago, people in NSW enjoyed COVID zero – dancing in bars, eating in restaurants, working in offices and learning in schools.

But everything changed on June 16th.

It started as a case but within 10 days it had exploded and Greater Sydney was placed in a lockdown, it will only start popping up from next week.

In the outbreak so far, more than 60,000 people have been infected with COVID-19, while nearly 7,000 have been hospitalized and more than 400 have died.

This is what Sydney’s Delta eruption since June looks like, visualized in 21 seconds.

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The card maps cases based on postcodes.

Infections are visualized with dots and the colors are important.

Darker, red dots represent areas with a higher concentration of people with the virus.

The first dots can be seen around Bondi, in the eastern suburbs.

But the map illustrates how the virus quickly moved westward and took hold in other areas.

This shift was to be the story of Sydney’s struggle to stem the tide.

Khal Asfour, mayor of the Canterbury-Bankstown (LGA) local area in southwest Sydney, said cases spread so fast in his area because 80 per cent of workers were in key jobs such as logistics and transport.

“Then people came home, and because we have larger families, it spread because the Delta variant was very, very contagious,” he said.

a woman pulling a shopping cart in Bankstown
Bankstown, in Sydney’s southwest, was one of the hardest hit suburbs during the Delta eruption.(

ABC News: Tim Swanston

)

By the end of July, 12 LGAs in the city’s west and southwest had been identified as specific “areas of concern”.

This meant that they were subjected to even tighter lockdown restrictions and COVID-19 test regimes.

These 12 LGAs have been home to more than 44,000 cases or 74 percent of NSW in total.

Delta spreads to regions

On August 11, the virus came to Dubbo in western NSW after a couple who had been in western Sydney returned home.

While cases had already leaked from the metro area to nearby population centers such as Wollongong and Newcastle, the Dubbo outbreak was particularly worrying.

Authorities identified lower vaccination rates, limited access to health infrastructure and a higher proportion of vulnerable people, including indigenous communities, as reasons why an outbreak in western NSW was particularly worrying.

Here’s how the outbreak spread to regional NSW.

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COVID quickly spread to Broken Hill, Walgett, and the largely indigenous community of Wilcannia.

At that time, only 8 percent of indigenous peoples in western NSW were fully vaccinated.

Native epidemiologist Kalinda Griffiths of the University of NSW told ABC News on August 17 that very little data was available on local immunization rates.

“It’s really critical because it lets us know who needs what where,” she said.

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She said indigenous health services were best placed to improve vaccination rates among First Nations communities.

“That’s why it’s really important to listen to the people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander on how best to work this on earth,” she said.

More than 1,300 humans were infected with COVID in western NSW, particularly Dubbo (919), Bourke (142), Broken Hill (121) and Wilcannia (150).

Thousands of vaccines were sent to the region in August.

While immunization rates among NSW natives have improved since then, in many regional communities, more than 60 percent of indigenous people are not fully vaccinated.

The health system is under pressure

On July 11, an infected woman in her 90s died at Liverpool Hospital in the southwestern part of Sydney — the first death from the Delta eruption.

By the end of August, more than 700 people had been hospitalized with the virus, and hospitals in western Sydney rejected some COVID-19 patients.

The NSW government has always been aware that shutdowns were necessary to stop the hospital system from being overwhelmed.

Modeling from the Burnett Institute released by the NSW government showed that cases would peak at between 1,100 and 2,000 a day in mid-September and admissions at the end of October at between 2,200 to 3,900.

On case numbers, the prediction was remarkably accurate, peaking at a seven-day average of 1,363 on September 12th.

However, the model miscalculated the peak of hospitalizations.

They appear to have peaked at a seven-day moving average of 1,263 on September 23, though that may change as fully vaccinated people in lockdown areas are assigned a squad of new liberties from Monday.

Fiona Stanaway, senior lecturer in epidemiology at the University of Sydney, said the lockdown was crucial in getting case numbers down.

“Especially because we came from such a small base of low vaccinations,” she said.

“If we had not had the lockdown, we would have had a much higher case number and overwhelmed the hospital system and much higher deaths, so the lockdown was absolutely necessary.”

She said the extra effect of the vaccines had finally brought the cases under control.

NSW Health data showed that only 4 percent of the people with COVID who were hospitalized until September 18 were fully vaccinated.

Three patients can be seen in beds in a hospital ward.
Frontline employees were stretched to their limit in Sydney’s COVID-19 intensive care units.(

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Vaccines for rescue

At the beginning of the outbreak, only 8 percent of NSW residents were fully vaccinated.

But as people around the state climbed to get the jab, supplies from Pfizer ran low and authorities asked people to book time for AstraZeneca, which NSW was “flooded” with, according to Health Minister Brad Hazzard.

On August 15, 500,000 doses of Pfizer arrived from Poland and were pumped into the arms of 18- to 40-year-olds in the 12 concerned LGAs.

Dr Stanaway said the strategy was the right one.

“I think it had a positive impact, both in terms of targeting younger people who were in jobs where they were likely to send, but also targeting older people in their suburbs so that they were protected if they were infected by their younger children or grandchildren who were the essential workers, ”she said.

The vaccine flashes so the number of people with a dose more than double in several areas is considered hot spots.

Asfour said people in Canterbury-Bankstown felt unfairly targeted as violators.

“I think the evidence of it being at the rapid pace of our vaccination rates went from so low to so high in such a short time,” he said.

“It’s proof that we want to do the right thing and we’re doing the right thing.”

This week, NSW reached the goal of full vaccination of 70 percent of the population aged 16 and over.

Under the state government’s roadmap for COVID-19, 70 percent double-dose coverage triggers a massive easing of restrictions.

That means people who have received both jabs will be able to do things like eat out at restaurants, go to the gym and visit a friend’s home from Monday.

But the population is set to become even more protected.

People wearing masks in a queue
The NSW government doubled their efforts to get the people of Sydney vaccinated ahead of easing restrictions.(

ABC News: Tim Swanston

)

About 90 percent of people in NSW aged 16 and over have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and Dr Stanaway said extra coverage was important.

This is the difference between countries such as Denmark (75 per cent of the total population) and Portugal (85 per cent), which have checked case numbers after reopening, and the United Kingdom (66 per cent) and Israel (64 per cent), both of which open at the lower vaccination levels.

Both Britain and Israel opened with few restrictions and have since seen very high case numbers.

“Getting these vaccination rates above 90 percent is amazing,” Dr. Stanaway said.

“It will help us, not only in terms of transferring cases, but more importantly, the health care system and making sure that when we have outbreaks, the health care system is not overwhelmed.”

More than 90 percent of NSW residents aged 65 and over have had a dose of vaccine, providing a high level of protection to the most vulnerable residents.

Vaccination opened to 12- to 15-year-olds on Sept. 15, and in just one month, 44 percent nationally have had their first dose.

Dr Stanaway said the high vaccination rates among older people would reduce hospitalizations, but warned that there were gaps in coverage, including in indigenous peoples and some parts of northern NSW.

While the people of NSW will hope that cases do not go astray and that lockdowns become a saga bare, Mr Asfour said his community still felt the effects of being stigmatized.

“I think we’ll be a Sydney again,” he said.

“We will forgive, but it will take some time. But we will certainly not forget the way we have been treated by the government with our finger.”

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