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Sydney's COVID-19 cases ease but lockdown extension still looms

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A dog chases a ball at a popular city lookout spot in front of the Crown Sydney skyscraper during a lockdown to curb the spread of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Sydney, Australia, July 12, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

  • Outbreak spreads beyond Sydney
  • Officials concerned infectious people out in public
  • Sydney man becomes country's second COVID-19 death this year
  • Sydney lockdown could extend beyond Friday

SYDNEY, July 13 (Reuters) - Australian authorities reported a slight slowdown in new COVID-19 cases in Sydney on Tuesday, but may still extend a lockdown in the country's largest city to douse an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant.

New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned the harbour city's more than 5 million residents not to become complacent as she reported 89 new locally transmitted cases, down from Monday's record high for the year of 112 infections.

"One day is not a trend, the numbers will keep bouncing around," Berejiklian said in a televised news conference.

The outbreak was also showing signs of spreading further afield, alarming health officials.

One of the New South Wales cases was in Goulburn, a regional centre 200 km (120 miles) from Sydney that had not recorded a case in a year. Neighbouring Victoria state reported three new cases, its first in almost two weeks, in a family who had returned to Melbourne from a visit to New South Wales.

Authorities also reported the death of a man in his 70s, the second COVID-19 death in Australia this year after a woman in her 90s died in recent days.

Berejiklian said a decision on extending Sydney's three-week lockdown, due to end on Friday, will depend on how many people were found to be out in the community while infectious.

NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said at least 21 of the cases on Tuesday had been circulating in the community, also a dip from the previous day, but that was still too many.

Berejiklian said the underlying number needs to be close to zero.

Coronavirus hotspots across Sydney now number in the hundreds, including apartment blocks, homeware stores, health clinics, a bank, a butcher and even COVID-19 vaccination centres.

An apartment building in beachfront suburb Bondi was locked down under police guard after eight occupants tested positive, while Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) temporarily closed its main Sydney distribution centre after two workers tested positive.

People in the outer-city government area of Fairfield, epicentre of the outbreak, were ordered to get tested every three days if they travelled outside the area for work.

Phannarith Ing, who runs a small building company and frequently leaves the area for jobs, said: "I don't mind doing the test, it's just part and parcel of having to travel across to the job that needs to be done. What choice do we have?"

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Snap lockdowns, speedy contact tracing and tough social distancing rules have helped Australia keep COVID-19 numbers lower than many other developed countries, with just over 31,300 cases and 912 deaths. read more

The Sydney outbreak is growing rapidly, however. Infections neared 800 on Tuesday, less than a month since the first was detected in a limousine driver who transported overseas airline crews.

Both Victoria and South Australia states have ramped up precautions, including enforcing quarantine measures and closing domestic borders, to stop the virus spreading there.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under pressure due to a sluggish vaccination rollout, said the government was upping a relief payment to A$600 per week from A$500 for people who lose more than 20 hours a week of work, as well as payroll support for companies with marked revenue declines.

Some of the payments would begin only from the fourth week of lockdown, which would start on Sunday if the current three-week lockdown is extended.

"The NSW outbreak has proved to be more severe, more dangerous, and it's in the national interest that we now put in place an upgraded set of arrangements," Morrison said.

Reporting by Renju Jose and Byron Kaye; Editing by Jane Wardell and Tom Hogue

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