The NT registers three new local cases of COVID-19 linked to the Katherine cluster as the remote community of Lajamanu goes into lockdown

Northern Territory has registered three local 24-hour COVID-19 cases related to the Katherine cluster.

The new cases are with a man in his 40s from Katherine, a woman in her 20s from Robinson River and a boy under 10 from Robinson River.

This brings the total number of cases linked to the local cluster to 56.

Prime Minister Michael Gunner said all three people are household contacts and had been in the Howard Springs quarantine facility throughout their infectious periods.

A fourth case recorded in the NT overnight was a flight crew member arriving from London on a return flight.

Sir. Gunner said that because the three local cases were tested positive late in their 14-day quarantine periods, there was a chance they had caught the virus while in Howard Springs as a result of “family mixing”.

He said the rules around mingling in Howard Springs had since been tightened.

Some people staying in the facility will have their quarantine periods extended as a result.

Yesterday, the Greater Katherine area, including Rockhole, moved from a lockdown to a lockout that is due to end on December 7th.

The community in Binjari remains in a hard lockdown awaiting the results of several tests.

So far, 537 close contacts have been identified as part of the Katherine cluster.

All but one have been contacted and isolated.

Sir. Gunner noted that it was now 30 days ago that the cluster’s source case, in an interstate traveler who allegedly lied on her border entry form, arrived at the NT.

The Lajamanu community is locked

The remote community of Lajamanu, about 560 kilometers southwest of Katherine, was sent off last night after wastewater samples tested positive for COVID.

Sir. Gunner said a rapid assessment team had arrived in Lajamanu late last night to test, vaccinate and otherwise support the community, and Katherine West Health Board staff also helped.

He said authorities intended to test everyone in Lajamanu over the next 48 hours.

“When you get a positive wastewater sample like this, it’s equivalent to the Katherine East experience at [the] 200th anniversary [Road] upland, and there is a cause in society, “he said.

No resident of Lajamanu has reported any symptoms so far.

Lajamanu, 800 km north of Alice Springs
COVID virus fragments have been detected in Lajamanu wastewater samples.(ABC News: Stephanie Zillman)

Sir. Gunner also said it would be a focus to get more residents vaccinated.

Lajamanu currently has a first dose vaccination rate of around 60 percent and a second dose of only 35 percent, according to NT government figures.

Sir. Gunner said more resources were also being sent to nearby remote communities of Yuendumu and Kalkarindji to increase vaccination rates, and that daily wastewater tests were being conducted in a number of surrounding communities.

NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker urged anyone who had left Lajamanu in the past week to be tested for COVID immediately.

And he asked territories living in remote communities to “stay where you are” to help curb the spread of the virus.

“If you do not have to travel, just stay where you are,” he said.

A police officer speaks at a media conference.  He looks serious.
Commissioner Chalker urges residents of remote communities to limit their travel to prevent the spread of COVID.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Test results are still awaiting COVID-positive South African travelers

Acting Chief Health Officer Charles Pain said authorities were still waiting for the test results of a COVID-positive repatriation from South Africa who arrived in NT on Thursday to see if the man wore the new Omicron variant of concern.

“We are doing the genomic test at the moment so we can have a result tomorrow if we are lucky, or maybe the day after,” he said.

Dr. Pain said the test took a little longer than usual because the man had returned a “slightly low positive result”.

“We’re doing some extra testing so we collect more viruses from the individual so we do not … have that confirmation yet,” he said.

Dr. Pain said it was still too early to say whether the new Omicron variant was “actually a more deadly virus”.

“We do not know if it will actually cause more serious illness, and we do not know the other important things about whether the vaccine would have a minor effect or treatments,” he said.

He said the alarm bells were originally raised about the new variant because its discovery coincided with an increase in the number of cases in South Africa, and it showed about 30 mutations in the tip protein, which is the part of the virus that attaches to human cells and infects humans.

Family mix, husband’s escape raises security issues

Authorities said there had been a change in Howard Springs procedures to reduce the risk of COVID transmission through family reunification.

They said some confusion had only occurred within family groups, rather than between different family groups or domestic and international travelers, and overall the consistency of the facility was good.

“These are completely different circumstances than those we have experienced before,” said Dr. Pain.

“Gathering families – we have tried to do that, but as you can imagine, we try to keep people separate to prevent that transfer, while keeping the conditions habitable and civilized for people.

“We will adjust our systems to prevent further transmission.”

Aerial drone images of Howard Springs Quarantine Facility.
Stricter security measures are now in place at the Howard Springs quarantine facility, near Darwin.(ABC News: Dane Hirst)

It comes after a 27-year-old man tested negative for COVID allegedly escaped the Howard Springs quarantine facility by scaling a fence Friday night.

He was caught by police and returned to the facility about four hours later.

Yesterday, Health Minister Natasha Fyles said the government would conduct a review of the facility to determine what had happened.

Asked what was being done in Howard Springs to prevent bad behavior, Commissioner Chalker said he wanted to be aware that “we are not running a prison” and people staying at the faculty had to take into account health risks and work with the authorities.

But he admitted there was room for improvement.

“We have learned from that,” he said of the escape.

“We have worked with the teams on site to ensure that any of the gaps that were inadvertently created have been closed.”

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