Port Stephens still on alert as COVID-19 cases spike

A small, but nevertheless significant, spike in coronavirus cases in Port Stephens has put the entire community on notice as local health authorities work overtime to contain any potential spread.

Since news of the first case was officially reported on July 21, Hunter New England Health (HNEH) has deployed extra testing staff at Tomaree Community Hospital and established a drive-through clinic at Tomaree Sporting Complex to cope with the influx of residents seeking COVID-19 testing.

"At the HNEH-run Tomaree hospital clinic there were between 250-450 people tested throughout the weekdays, and between 30 to 50 people on Saturday and Sunday," a HNEH spokesperson said.

"The drive through clinic at Tomaree saw approximately 480 people tested on Friday, 340 on Saturday, and almost 150 on Sunday."

As of July 30, Port Stephens had seven confirmed cases: a man aged in his 60s (announced July 21), a man aged in his 30 and two children aged under 10 and under two (announced July 23), a woman in her 30s and a woman in her 60s (announced July 29) and a second man in his 60s (announced July 30).

All are now in isolation. A team of under-9 Nelson Bay AFL players are also in isolation as they are considered a close contact of the child aged under 10 who was confirmed to have COVID. The team played a game of AFL at Don Waring Oval, Nelson Bay, on July 19.

HNEH has confirmed that the source of infection was a visitor from Sydney who was part of the Thai Rock restaurant cluster.

The new Port Stephens cases - the first to be recorded in more than six weeks for the region - resulted in a rush of people getting tested and a partial shutdown of local businesses, predominantly in the tourism and hospitality sectors.

The Tomaree Peninsula's major two aged care centres, Harbourside Haven and Regis at Corlette, were forced into a 14-day lockdown, and both Tomaree High and Tomaree Primary schools were closed for two days (Thursday and Friday July 23-24) before reopening Monday, July 27.

And while health authorities have stopped short of making face masks in public mandatory, at least one Port Stephens civic leader Leah Anderson has called on locals to be pro-active and don the masks in the interests of "community responsibility".

NSW continues to record low double digit new cases, prompting the state's health authorities to consider implementing tighter restrictions.

"People are being urged to again avoid non-essential travel and gatherings, of particular concern is transmission in venues such as hotels and restaurants, gyms and social gatherings," NSW Health said.

Eighteen new cases of COVID-19 were detected in NSW in 24 hours to Thursday morning, with more than 27,000 tests carried out.

State MP Kate Washington was full of praise for the manner in which residents responded to the initial outbreak in Port Stephens by heeding the medical advice in an effort to stop the virus from spreading.

"Most of us reduced our contact and so far we've been able to stabilise local case numbers and avoid the dramatic daily increases witnessed elsewhere. But we cannot afford to relax. Until there's a vaccine or cure, risks remain high."

Dr David Durrheim, the public health controller for Hunter New England Health's COVID-19 response, was equally impressed with the manner in which the entire community responded. He continues to urge all Port Stephens residents to remain vigilant despite the fact there had been no new cases in the past four days.

"Those people coming forward to get tested have done the right thing ... the Port Stephens community should be thankful that have taken that responsibility, which is keeping the rest of us safe," he said. "Our team continues to do everything they possibly can to contact anyone who has had close contact with the new cases."

Dr Durrheim's message to anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms such as fever, sore throat, cough or shortness of breath, is to get tested, then self isolate until the results are revealed.

"Even those with mild symptoms such as fatigue, new muscle aches or pains, a change in taste or smell or a new runny nose are encouraged to arrange testing."

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