Australia hits vaccine milestone as Melbourne cases hover near record levels

SYDNEY (Reuters) -More than half of Australia's adult population were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday, authorities said, as they step up inoculations in hopes of easing restrictions while cases linger near daily record levels in Victoria.

Australia is grappling with a third wave of infections from the highly infectious Delta variant that has led to lockdowns in its two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, and the capital, Canberra, affecting nearly half the country's 25 million people.

These tough curbs and a decision to shut construction sites for two weeks over the rapid spread of the virus among workers triggered anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, for three straight days.

Police made some arrests in Melbourne on Friday, local media reported, as they look to prevent more protests.

As most of Australia's southeast remains under strict stay-at-home restrictions, virus-free Western Australia is gearing up to host the Australian Rules Football Grand Final for the first time, in front of 60,000 fans at Perth Stadium on Saturday.

Melbourne, which had hosted every Grand Final since 1898, was the sport's spiritual home until the pandemic forced a shift to Brisbane last year.

Victoria on Friday reported one new death and 733 new infections, its second biggest daily rise in the pandemic, down from the record high of 766 on Thursday. Most cases were detected in Melbourne.

Both New South Wales (NSW) and Victorian leaders have pledged more freedom to residents once full vaccinations in people older than 16 reach 70%, expected next month. So far, 57% have been fully vaccinated in NSW, above the national average of 50.1%. Two million doses were administered in country in the last seven days.

Daily cases may have stabilised in NSW, the epicentre of the country's worst outbreak, as it reported 1,043 new infections, down from 1,063 on Thursday.

"We are seeing pleasing declines ... hopefully we will see numbers decrease in coming days and weeks," state Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said during a media briefing in Sydney.

But officials flagged any easing of curbs in NSW would be done "cautiously and moderately" when the state hits its 70% dual-dose target, around Oct. 6, to avoid spikes in cases that could overwhelm its health systems.

Even with the fast-moving Delta outbreak, Australia has largely avoided high numbers seen in many comparable countries, with some 94,000 cases and 1,208 deaths, and the death rate is lower than last year because of higher vaccination rates.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

09/24/2021 3:03

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