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Sixth case of Omicron suspected in NSW

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More virus exposure sites are expected in NSW after the discovery of a likely sixth case of the Omicron COVID variant in Sydney.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard said early testing indicated the man, who is in his 40s and lives in Cabramatta, had the variant.

Confirmation is expected on Wednesday afternoon. If confirmed, it would be Australia’s seventh Omicron case – after six earlier infections in NSW and one in a repatriated traveller in the Northern Territory.

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The Cabramatta man arrived back in Sydney last Thursday, on the same flight that is already linked to other cases of the variant in NSW.

“The reason he was tested is he does have symptoms. But I understand at this point they’re mild symptoms,” Mr Hazzard said.

The man had spent six months in Nigeria before returning to Australia – before quarantine rules were tightened as Omicron emerged across the globe.

“The gentleman has been in the community. And [NSW] Health is currently interviewing him,” Mr Hazzard said.

“But he’s been out and about. My alert to the community – watch what happens today in terms of advice from health.”

NSW Health is retesting coronavirus swabs from the past fortnight from arrivals from southern Africa, to see if there are other earlier cases of the variant. Mr Hazzard said about 300 had already been double-checked.

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Anyone who has arrived in Australia from Africa in the past two weeks is asked to get tested for the virus.

“There was no awareness of Omicron until last Thursday or Friday, it seems like a lifetime ago already, but it was only a few days ago,” Mr Hazzard said.

Dutch health authorities said on Wednesday (Australian time) that they had found Omicron in COVID test samples dating from November 19 and 23. Previously, the first cases of the variant were thought to have arrived in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Sunday.

NSW, which had another 251 COVID infections on Wednesday, has increased fines for people who fail to comply with quarantine and testing requirements from $1000 to $5000 as it tries to deal with the worrying variant.

International arrivals into NSW, Victoria and the ACT must also quarantine for 72 hours under rules introduced at the weekend. Returning Australians from southern African countries need to quarantine for two weeks.

But state and territory leaders have agreed to hold the line on domestic virus measures until more is known about risks posed by Omicron.

At a special national cabinet meeting on Tuesday, federal, state and territory leaders examined data indicating Omicron is more transmissible than previous COVID-19 variants.

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But there is no evidence it causes more severe illness, and not enough evidence to show vaccines and treatments are less effective against Omicron.

UNSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws has urged people to be cautious over the next fortnight.

“We should be on high alert because there are many things we still don’t know about this particular mutation,” she told the Nine Network on Wednesday.

“We don’t know, of course, whether it gets around things like vaccine efficacy and let’s hope it doesn’t.

“I would advise that you just be highly cautious. You don’t want to get sick over the holidays. Wear your mask when you are shopping.”

Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek said no one wanted to see a return to widespread lockdowns.

“We need to do everything we can as a country to avoid that sort of social and economic hit. People are so tired of the lockdowns and the restrictions,” she told ABC radio.

“Whatever the medical advice tells us we need to do to keep Australians safe, we should do.”

Victoria had 1179 more cases and six more deaths on Wednesday.

-with AAP

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