Australian officials have sent an emergency medical team, usually deployed to disaster zones, to aged care homes in the city of Melbourne to try help contain a rapidly spreading outbreak of the coronavirus.
Another hotspot, in inner-city Sydney, has forced a senior adviser to Prime Minister Scott Morrison into self-isolation.
Australia has so far reported relatively fewer coronavirus cases than many other countries, but a spike in community transmission in the southeast states of Victoria and New South Wales has alarmed health officials.
Aged care homes are at the centre of the Victoria outbreak. National Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth said there were 679 active COVID-19 cases linked to the homes, including workers.
“The numbers of cases in some facilities is substantial and that is going to take some time to get on top of,” Coatsworth told Australian Broadcasting Corp television.
Asked if Australia should expect to see similar rates of death from the virus in aged care facilities as those recorded overseas - some as high as one-in-five - he said it was critical to “get these outbreaks under control as quickly as possible.”
Coatsworth said an Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) was on its way to help deal with the crisis. AUSMAT teams generally include doctors, nurses, paramedics, radiographers and pharmacists.
At one facility, several residents were transferred to hospital by helicopter on Tuesday and army medics were sent in to cover staff who are self-isolating.
In Sydney, officials are grappling with several virus clusters that have sprung up at pubs, restaurants and schools.
Morrison’s office confirmed that a senior aide was among those told to self-isolate after an outbreak in the inner-city suburb of Potts Point.
Morrison, who cut short an interstate tour on Tuesday to deal with the crisis, was cleared to continue working as usual given the aide had no COVID-19 symptoms, his office added.
Australia has recorded just over 15,300 cases and 167 deaths as of Tuesday.