Darwin and surrounding areas have been placed in lockdown for 48 hours following five new COVID-19 cases linked to a central Australian mine.
None were locally transmitted but Chief Minister Michael Gunner says the outbreak represents the Northern Territory’s biggest crisis since the beginning of the pandemic.
He says the cases are likely to involve the highly contagious Delta variant and more infections are expected.
The lockdown started at 1pm on Sunday following revelations 900 workers left Newmont’s Granites Mine, which is 540km northwest of Alice Springs, where a man tested positive then flew to Brisbane, Perth and Alice Springs.
About 400 fly-in-fly-out workers travelled to Brisbane, with another 250 heading to Perth.
Of 244 potentially exposed people who remained in the NT, Mr Gunner said 15 who arrived in Darwin since Friday remain unaccounted for.
As a result, there was a need to “assume the worst, assume they are positive and assume that there are exposure sites”.
Mr Gunner says one of the five detected positive cases had travelled to NSW and was being managed by authorities there.
Another positive case has been identified in Queensland.
Two from the cohort are isolating at the mine in the Tanami Desert but would be evacuated to the Territory’s Centre for National Resilience at Howard Springs.
The fifth case was one of the mine worker’s close contacts who lives in Palmerston, south of Darwin. He tested positive to COVID-19 while in the Howard Springs centre.
Mr Gunner stressed that the cases were not considered community transmissions.
He said the Palmerston case involved a 64-year-old employee of the mine who had travel by plane to Darwin on Friday.
He was picked up by his wife and went straight home to Palmerston.
His only other travel was to collect his adult daughter from her workplace and he did not leave the car. His wife and daughter had no additional movements.
When interviewed on Saturday, the man told contact tracers he was isolating at home with his wife and daughter and had developed symptoms.
From there, he was immediately tested and taken to the Centre for National Resilience.
Mr Gunner said two contacts of the original mine case were still to be located.
“We are urgently tracking them down but again … we are assuming the worst.
“Everything we see points to this being the highly infectious Delta variant,” he added.
“We are expecting more cases and we are not expecting them to be as clear as … this morning.
“There is a stronger chance that any new cases will have exposure sites which makes the job of tracing and testing much bigger.”
Darwin, Palmerston and Litchfield local government areas have entered full lockdown for 48 hours, with anyone leaving their home required to wear a face mask.
Residents are only permitted to leave home for medical treatment, to obtain essential goods and services, for work considered essential, one hour of exercise a day or to provide care.
As the lockdown approached, queues quickly formed at supermarkets and petrol stations across Darwin as shoppers tried to buy supplies, with many complaining there were no masks to buy.
Australian Associated Press