Sydney steps up vaccine rollout as Australia's COVID-19 cases at daily high

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FILE PHOTO: Coronavirus testing on the first day of a seven-day COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne
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By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia reported its biggest one-day rise in coronavirus infections on Thursday, as authorities began doling out emergency supplies of vaccine in the Sydney suburbs worst hit by an outbreak of the fast-moving Delta strain.

Officials allocated more than half an emergency supply of Pfizer vaccines bought from Poland, or about 500,000 doses, to the city's dozen worst-affected suburbs where they will be given to those younger than 40 over the next two weeks.

The ramp-up in inoculations provides hope to Australia's biggest city amid its worst outbreak since the pandemic began, said Gladys Berejiklian, premier of its home state of New South Wales.

"The next few weeks will be hard, but no doubt once we get those high vaccination rates life will feel much better, it will look much rosier," she told reporters in Sydney, the state capital.

"I know these are challenging times, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Thursday's daily nationwide figure of 754 cases surpassed the previous single-day high of 738 on Aug. 5 last year. New South Wales, which is Australia's most populous state, accounted for the bulk of infections, or 681, and it recorded a new death.

Officials are scrambling to hasten vaccinations in the state before they can lift its lockdown measures.

Although Berejiklian has yet to formally extend the shutdown set to expire at month-end, she has made clear that 70% of the state's population that is older than 16 must be vaccinated, a target she expects to reach by the end of October.

The state has completed vaccination of 28.5% of its population, slightly higher than national numbers, with about 52% having received one dose.

LIVING WITH DELTA

Lockdown measures are cramping the lifestyles of more than half of Australia's population of 25 million in the cities of Melbourne and Canberra, the capital, besides Sydney.

Although Australia's pandemic tally of just over 41,400 cases and the death toll of 971 is far lower than many nations, the latest outbreaks threaten to push the A$2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) economy into its second recession in as many years.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison set Aug. 30 for opening the vaccination program to younger healthy Australians aged between 16 and 39.

Those aged 18 or above can now receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, but will also be able to get the Pfizer vaccine from the end of the month.

Pressure had been mounting on Morrison as the low vaccination rates had missed his initial targets.

Health officials have warned of the risk of death and hospital stays, as just 27.5% of the population has completed vaccinations, with about half getting at least one dose.

Cases more than doubled to 57 in the second largest city of Melbourne on Thursday, while the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), home to Canberra, reported 16 new local infections.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr warned the capital was in a crucial stage of its virus fight and implored residents to stay home, adding, "We either stop this virus now or we live like Sydney for the rest of this year."

States' approaches to tackling the pandemic have varied from stamping it out to targeting acceptable levels of exposure.

"Everyone will have to learn to live with Delta and in New South Wales, we are learning that earlier than others," Berejiklian said.

(Reporting by Renju Jose and Paulina Duran in Sydney; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez)

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