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Melbourne, Australia, Is Shutting Down Due To A New Spike In Coronavirus Cases


Australia seemed to be one of the big success stories in managing the coronavirus. But there's been an ongoing spike of positive cases in Melbourne, and that has led to some serious lockdown restrictions. Today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that travel in and out of Australia will remain restricted. Elizabeth Kulas is a reporter in Melbourne. She joins us now.

Hi, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH KULAS: Thank you for having me, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: So tell us more about why there was this spike in Melbourne compared to other parts of Australia?

KULAS: Yeah, this current spike in Melbourne really can be traced back, if not completely, at least in large part to the use of a hotel quarantine system that we've had in place since late March for returning travelers - so that's anyone returning to the country spending a mandatory stay of two weeks in a hotel, and then there's testing and other conditions before they're released. Sydney and Melbourne - of course, main transport hubs - have handled the bulk of those stays.

And Victoria, the state where Melbourne is located, has handled that quarantine setup quite differently to other states. In Melbourne, they relied very heavily on the use of private security firms, who then subcontracted some of those duties out to other security guards. In other states and territories in the country, police and the Defence Force were used more heavily. So it's now understood that the likely outbreak we're currently experiencing was a result of breaches in that hotel quarantine system, that same system that was really intended to keep the city safe. And reports are circulating about inadequate use of PPE and inadequate supplies of PPE, a lack of training for security staff - things like carpooling happening on the way to work and a lack of social distancing guidelines being met.

So we know that that's very likely if not the result of - the source of every case we're experiencing right now, the vast majority of them. And we've got a royal commission into the failures of that system currently happening. It's been pushed out as a result of these very increased lockdown conditions we've been under since Monday, and we now expect that it will return its findings in early November to understand exactly what's happened.

VANEK SMITH: So, Elizabeth, walk us through the most recent numbers. And where exactly do they seem to be increasing?

KULAS: Yeah, so most of the current case numbers are coming from - well, there's a number of clusters and outbreaks happening. But many of the environments that have been hot spots around the world - so aged care homes, for example, schools, high schools in particular have been the result of some of those outbreaks or the center of some of those outbreaks, meat distribution and abattoir centers, warehousing, distribution centers and high-density living arrangements like public housing complexes as well. And the focus has really been - the latest focus of this lockdown has really been on work environments, so where - which work and employment environments is the virus spreading through, and that's really informed the lockdown that we've had in place since Monday.

VANEK SMITH: Do we have a sense of, like, hundreds of cases, thousands of cases? What are we looking at?

KULAS: Yeah, look - on average, yeah, case numbers at the moment are somewhere around 500 a day. We've peaked this week with our highest single-day rise of around 725 cases. But the hope is now, of course, that we'll see a sustained drop in that.

VANEK SMITH: Well, I mean, that number of cases is definitely more than there were, but it seems kind of small compared to what we've been experiencing in the U.S. I guess that is exactly what you're trying to avoid, though.

KULAS: Absolutely. Look - the situation does need to be put in context. I saw some calculations on daily per capita infection rates this week that would put the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is, around 34th out of the 50 U.S. states. But in the context of the Australian situation, we're increasingly isolated at the moment. We can't travel outside of the metropolitan area, let alone into our neighboring states. So, you know, it really does depend on the context that you put it in. But yeah, I guess the idea is, really, to aim for suppression as much as possible, which I know is everybody's goal.

VANEK SMITH: Elizabeth Kulas is a reporter in Melbourne.

Thank you so much.

KULAS: Thank you, Stacey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.