Australia PM meets with National Cabinet amid virus surge

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People queue at a walk-in COVID-19 testing site in Melbourne, Australia Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. Australia on Wednesday saw sharply rising COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations and long queues at testing centers as it continued to battle the rapid spread of the virus in most states. (Joel Carrett/AAP Image)

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia on Wednesday saw rising COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations and long queues at testing centers as it continued to battle the rapid spread of the virus in most states.

The country recorded more than 64,000 cases, up from 47,000 a day earlier, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison met virtually with the National Cabinet — the leaders of Australia’s states and territories — to discuss how to respond to almost daily records in new cases and rising pressure on hospitals.

Morrison faces increasing calls to make rapid antigen tests available free in some cases to relieve pressure on PCR testing centers, many of which have been forced to close after reaching capacity. People who have been tested often face long waits for results from overburdened laboratories.

New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, saw a record 35,054 new cases on Wednesday as it awaits the arrival of 50 million rapid antigen tests ordered by the state government.

State Premier Dominic Perrottet urged residents not to seek PCR tests unless necessary, adding that the arrival of the rapid testing kits expected next week would “significantly assist.”

Victoria state reported 17,636 cases, a state record, and Queensland saw 6,871 cases.

The case numbers do not necessarily reflect the true spread of the virus as they only count the number of recorded cases.

Hospitalizations nationwide stood at 2,990 on Wednesday, with 196 patients in intensive care. Both numbers were higher than the previous day, when 2,684 hospitalizations were recorded, with 183 people in intensive care.

Morrison reiterated his position Wednesday that the federal government would not make rapid antigen tests available free, despite increasing pressure to do so.

“What we’re focused on is ensuring that the tests are there for those who need them for health reasons,” Morrison told reporters.

Morrison said rapid testing kits face supply problems and that the federal and state governments had been trying since August to obtain tests in large numbers and had acquired around 160 million of them.

“We will overcome that challenge like we’ve overcome all the challenges through COVID, which has put us in the situation where Australia has one of the lowest death rates, strongest economies and highest vaccination rates of any country in the world,” Morrison said.

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