SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia’s second most populous state of Victoria reported on Monday four new COVID-19 infections, all in the city of Melbourne, the first cases of community transmission in the state in nearly three months.
The new infections have raised alarm amid a slow take-up of vaccinations in Australia and as other countries in the region, including Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, have seen cases increase into the hundreds or thousands in the past few weeks.
“This is not a time to be complacent,” Victoria’s health minister, Martin Foley, told reporters.
The four cases, including a pre-school child, came from one extended family in two households in a northern suburb of Melbourne.
The source of their infection is under investigation. Officials are concerned there might be a missing link between the cluster and a man who returned to Melbourne from quarantine in Adelaide and tested positive earlier.
Victoria was the hardest-hit state during a second wave of COVID-19 late last year, accounting for about 70% of total cases and 90% of deaths.
The state only controlled the outbreak after one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns.
Australia has avoided the high COVID-19 numbers seen in many developed countries by closing its international borders in the early stages of the pandemic and with lockdowns. It has reported just over 30,000 cases and 910 deaths.
The new infections come as the federal government considers allowing fully vaccinated people to travel freely between states if regional borders have to be closed during future COVID-19 outbreaks.
In past outbreaks, states have imposed internal border closures and mandated 14-day quarantine for visitors.
Officials hope the vaccination and travel plan will encourage people to get vaccinated. Australia’s vaccination drive has missed initial targets and lags those of many countries.
Many Australians are hesitant or delaying getting vaccinated because of their country’s success in stamping out the virus.
Only 3.6 million of the 25 million population have received at least one shot. Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said the country would not be a “safe zone” until more than 15 million are inoculated.
“There’s no place that isn’t potentially at risk,” Sutton told reporters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week suggested fully vaccinated travellers should be exempt from hard lockdowns and internal border controls but most states have dismissed those suggestions.
Morrison, however, will take his plan on travel exemptions to the national cabinet – the group of federal and state government leaders – next week, the Australian newspaper said in on Monday, without citing any source.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Additional reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)