Albury Wodonga fears COVID outbreak could escalate as regions open to Sydneysiders

Regional Victoria welcomes vaccinated Sydneysider back from today, but a border community worries it could be “bad news”.

The reopening was delayed twice due to vaccination rates in the regions lagging behind the targets.

Albury-Wodonga has experienced high vaccine uptake, but it is still in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak with about 800 active cases in the twin cities.

NSW Health reported two more COVID deaths for Albury today – a man in his 70s and a woman in her 101s.

Both were fully vaccinated and had underlying health problems.

They acquired their infections at the Mercy Place Elderly Care Center in Albury, which increased the death toll from an outbreak at the facility to five.

A sign that reads "Mercy Place" in front of a bright building.
Two more residents at Mercy Place in Albury have died during the COVID outbreak.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Mikaela Ortolan)

Border health services are already struggling to keep up with the demand for testing, as more and more schools are listed as exposure sites.

There are fears that the need for testing will increase if the number of cases escalates in the wake of the regions opening up.

“There’s a sense of anxiety here as we’re still experiencing a significant outbreak ourselves,” said Albury City Mayor Kevin Mack.

A man wearing a dark suit is standing outside with his hands in his pockets.
Albury Mayor Kevin Mack says there is a sense of “shock” that Albury-Wodonga is reopening to Sydney.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Mikaela Ortolan)

‘I think we’re guinea pigs’

Today is also the day when fully vaccinated Victorians outside the border bubble can travel to NSW without a declaration or be subject to stay-at-home orders, provided they have not been in a place of great concern.

Fully vaccinated Australians in other countries can also finally return home from today.

While the number of cases is rising in Albury-Wodonga, it is not locked.

“I think we are the guinea pigs for the regions at the moment,” Cr Mack said.

“In some ways, I understand that because the regions of Australia need to go back to a kind of COVID normal.

A woman with glasses and an orange jacket addresses the media.
NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant promised to improve communication with the region during a visit last week.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Mikaela Ortolan)

CHO says sorry

NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant visited the border on Friday and apologized to the community for poor communication during the current outbreak, particularly with regard to schools.

“I apologize to anyone who had confusing messages,” she said.

Cr Mack said support for besieged Albury-Wodonga companies had also been incoherent.

“Once the schools are closed down, as they have been for the past two weeks, it is parents who are not going to work,” he said.

“We need decent economic stimulus.”

An electronic sign in a rural town says "The clinic is closed" in red.
Albury-Wodonga COVID test clinics have seen high demand in recent weeks.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Mikaela Ortolan)

Test decline gives cause for concern

Daily COVID-19 numbers have dropped slightly on the border recently – on Sunday there were 19 news stories in Wodonga and 16 new cases in Albury.

But Albury Wodonga Health said it was still too early to get excited and called for higher test scores.

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COVID-19 boosters start as early as November 8th

“We have some concerns about the low or significant drop in numbers we have seen between Friday and Saturday,” said Public Health CEO Lucie Shanahan.

Her comments coincide with today’s arrival of 30,000 rapid antigen tests in the region.

“It will give us some kind of indication of where we are,” Cr Mack said.

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