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Emergency teams battle Australia's worst virus outbreak in aged homes

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia has sent defence and emergency medical teams, usually deployed to disaster zones, to aged care homes in the city of Melbourne to help contain the country’s worst outbreak of the coronavirus.

A resident is taken to an ambulance from an aged care facility experiencing an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Melbourne, Australia, July 28, 2020. AAP Image/Daniel Pockett via REUTERS

Another hotspot, in inner-city Sydney, forced a senior adviser to Prime Minister Scott Morrison into self-isolation, but the prime minister has been cleared to continue working.

Queensland state barred entry to anyone from Sydney and locked down suburbs south of its capital, Brisbane, after two women tested positive for COVID-19 having returned from a trip to Melbourne without quarantining.

Australia has reported far fewer coronavirus cases than many other countries, with nearly 15,600 confirmed infections and 176 deaths as of Wednesday.

But a spike in community transmission in the most populous southeastern states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) has alarmed health officials just as the economy was reopening.

Victoria reported 295 new cases on Wednesday, taking the state’s total to 9,304 cases. There were nine deaths, including seven in aged care.

While the number of new infections was down from a record 532 on Monday, Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said it was too early to say new cases had peaked.

Aged care homes are at the centre of Victoria’s outbreak, with 804 active COVID-19 cases linked to the homes, including workers, state Premier Daniel Andrews said.

“The most tragic part of this outbreak is there have been 49 deaths in aged care. That is a terrible tragedy and there will be more,” Australia’s health secretary, Brendan Murphy, told reporters.

The government has sent 1,400 military personnel and five emergency teams to Melbourne to help deal with the aged care issues, including contact tracing.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said while infections in aged care made up only 7% of new cases in Victoria since July 1, all efforts were focused on reining in those outbreaks as the elderly are the “most vulnerable”.

At one facility, several residents were transferred to hospital by helicopter on Tuesday and army medics were sent to cover staff who are self-isolating.

NSW reported 19 new cases, including two in hotel quarantine, raising the state’s total cases to 3,529. The state capital Sydney is grappling with several clusters that have sprung up at pubs, restaurants and schools.

Morrison called the situation in 13 Victorian aged care facilities “very distressing”. The outbreaks have largely been due to transmission from workers at the homes, many of whom might not have been aware they were carrying the virus.

“When it rains, everyone gets wet. And that is what we’re seeing with broad-based community transmission in Victoria,” Morrison said.

Melbourne, the country’s second-most-populous city, is in the midst of reimposed lockdown that has stalled the reopening of businesses, forced other states to shut borders and delayed a proposed reopening of travel between Australia and New Zealand.

“There is a significant Victorian wave, but that Victorian wave is impacting the national economy more broadly,” Morrison said in a televised media conference.

Australia has entered its first recession since the early 1990s, with the budget set to plunge to its biggest deficit since World War Two, as the government has rolled out hundreds of billions of dollars in spending to boost the economy.

“It’s in the national interest, from a health perspective and economic perspective, that we ensure that Victoria wins here,” Morrison said.

Reporting by Renju Jose and Sonali Paul; Editing by Michael Perry and Stephen Coates