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Australia fights virus clusters as parts of country ease restrictions

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Australia fights virus clusters as parts of country ease restrictions

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The state of Victoria, Australia, saw its biggest increase in new cases of coronavirus in weeks on Sunday and the state of New South Wales struggled with a range of infections at a senior care center as parties of the country began to facilitate the rules of distancing.

Thirteen new cases were reported in Victoria on Sunday, health officials said, with six of the cases related to a group of infections at a meat processing facility in Melbourne.

"What worries me are the unknown unknowns," Victoria Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said in a televised briefing, calling for more people to be tested.

"We want to ensure that if we have positive cases in the community, we can identify these individuals … this is how we are going to defeat the virus."

In New South Wales, there were four new cases, two of which were registered at the Newmarch Elderly Care Center in Sydney, where more than 60 people were infected and 14 died.

Australia and neighboring New Zealand, which closed borders and imposed strict social blockades and restrictions, were hailed for containing outbreaks of COVID-19, but measures are set to bring both economies into recession.

Australia's success in suppressing the virus has led to some states and territories, allowing for more outdoor activities and public meetings ahead of plan.

Many national parks reopened in Queensland and people were allowed to have small picnics, while the Northern Territory began to lift restrictions in order to end them in June.

New South Wales made it possible to visit the homes of friends or neighbors, but in groups of no more than two, and next weekend, for the first time in six weeks, real estate agents will be able to conduct traditional property inspections and auctions on site.

Flexibilization, however, has been gradual and varied across Australia, the country of a loose federal system.

Victoria, the second most populous state, is expected to keep its rules strict at least until the state of emergency expires on May 11. Mikakos said that the possible relaxation of the rules after that date will depend on the number of daily infections.

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Last week, Australia recorded an average of just 13 new cases per day, according to the Ministry of Health, with the daily infection rate well below 1%, a fraction of what was seen in many other countries.

There were 6,783 confirmed cases and 94 deaths in Australia as of the end of Saturday, according to health officials. Neighboring New Zealand saw two new cases on Sunday, bringing the total to 1,136. Twenty people have died so far.

The Australian government, which will meet on Friday to discuss relaxing rules of social detachment at the federal level, hopes that its voluntary coronavirus tracking application, introduced last week, will help guide you in decision making.

On Saturday, four million Australians downloaded the COVIDSafe app, the Ministry of Health reported. This represents about 16% of the country's population, 25 million, and well below the government's initial 40% target.

Despite government guarantees that the app will not track the location and that the data collected will only be accessed by health authorities with users' consent, people remained concerned about the app's security.

"As we all know, it is very important that as many people as possible download the app," Deputy Medical Director Michael Kidd said on Saturday at a television briefing. (Reporting by Lidia Kelly)


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