SYDNEY, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Australia reported its lowest daily COVID-19 deaths in two weeks on Monday while cases continued to trend lower as authorities braced for staff shortages in schools due to likely outbreaks as thousands of students return after their summer break.
Most states will go through a staggered school reopening exercise this week as Australia battles the worst outbreak of the pandemic, with the fast-moving Omicron coronavirus variant spiralling cases to record levels.
"There will be challenges and there will be bumps over these first few weeks," Victoria state Deputy Premier James Merlino said during a media briefing on Monday. Merlino said a pool of about 350 retired teachers have been set up to support schools when they have to furlough staff.
Masks are mandatory indoors for older children and millions of at-home antigen tests, still not readily available in many stores, are being rolled out to families free of cost, with children asked to undergo COVID-19 tests twice a week.
About 40% of children aged 5-11 years have been administered their first vaccine dose, while around two-thirds of eligible Australians have received their boosters.
Though Omicron appears to be less virulent than earlier variants, the sheer number of cases has overwhelmed hospitals and testing facilities. Supply chains have been also disrupted resulting in bare supermarket shelves, angering Australians and denting Prime Minister Scott Morrison's approval rating, just months out from a federal election. read more
Nearly 34,000 new infections were reported on Monday, the lowest tally in a month, while 44 deaths were registered.
Hospitalisations have remained steady at around 5,000 for the last few days, peaking at just under 5,400 last Tuesday. The number was at 4,869 on Monday after falling over the past five days.
Of the 2.5 million infections detected since the pandemic began, some 2.3 million have been reported since the first Omicron case was found in the country late November. Total deaths are at 3,754, far lower than many developed countries.
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