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Australia on High Alert as Sydney COVID-19 Cluster Grows 

Vehicles queue while medical personnel administer tests for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Bondi Beach drive-through testing centre as the city experiences an outbreak in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 21, 2020.

Tougher controls have been put in place as Australia fights to contain a growing COVID-19 cluster in Sydney. Travel from the nation’s biggest city is being restricted as authorities race to find the source of 83 recently diagnosed infections, up from 68 on Sunday.

About 250,000 residents in Sydney’s northern beaches district have been ordered to stay-at-home until at least Wednesday after a cluster of new COVID-19 infections was discovered. The source of the cluster is not yet known, but officials believe it is likely to have come from a traveler returning from the United States, possibly a member of a flight crew.

All Australian states and territories are imposing border controls to keep out travelers from designated coronavirus ‘hotspots’ in Sydney. There have been mass cancellations of flights from Sydney to Melbourne, which was one of the world’s busiest air routes before the pandemic.

Other restrictions have been imposed across Australia’s biggest city. Singing and chanting at indoor venues is not allowed. Mask wearing is strongly recommended but not yet mandatory. A decision on whether to extend or relax the disease control measures will be made by the state government Wednesday.

New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian says a record number of people in Sydney have come forward for COVID-19 testing.

“To have more than 38,000 people come forward in a 24-hour period gives us enormous confidence that the number of cases that have been identified is a realistic position, given the number of people that have come forward to get tested," she said. "However, this is an on-going and evolving situation, and we know how contagious the virus is. I appreciate how frustrating it is, and I would love to be able to tell everybody today what Christmas might look like in New South Wales or the Northern Beaches, and I appreciate the community has been extremely patient. But I also appreciate..., I think the community understands our position. We want to make sure we keep people healthy.”

An inquiry into a botched hotel quarantine program criticized the Victorian state government for failing to do “proper analysis” of the plan. It found that security breaches triggered a deadly second wave of infections that killed more than 800 people, which is the vast majority of Australia’s coronavirus fatalities.

Private security guards were put in charge of Victoria’s quarantine hotels without adequate training in infection control. The inquiry blamed “systemic governmental failings” for the “disaster” that followed. In May and June, COVID-19 spread from returned travelers to hotel staff and then, with devastating consequences, into the community. Hundreds of people died, and the city of Melbourne was ordered into Australia’s toughest and longest coronavirus lockdown.

The cluster of cases in Sydney is a blow to Australia's record of mostly containing the virus. It has detected 28,170 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. 908 people have died, according to Australia's department of health.