AUTHORITIES are under increasing pressure to contain outbreaks of COVID-19 across the Hunter as private hospital staff are re-deployed and clusters continue to grow.
A 94-unit block in Cardiff was temporarily locked down, while nine disability support workers were found to have been infectious while providing care and support to swathes of residents in individual and group homes.
Tighter restrictions limiting movement between the regions and Sydney are back on the table, and unions are calling on the state government to extend financial supports to the Hunter's workers.
The region recorded 15 new cases of COVID-19 in the 24 hours to 8pm on Tuesday - 10 in Newcastle, two in Maitland and three in Lake Macquarie, bringing the region's total to 143.
That number continues to grow. Damien Ferguson, CEO of one of the affected disability support services, PHM Health, said staff were working hard to put containment measures in place and follow all public health unit advice. "We do apologise to the community," he said.
Meanwhile teachers urged parents who are not essential workers to keep their children home from school, and Australian Defence Force personnel joined Newcastle police to conduct welfare and compliance checks.
Elective surgery at five of the Hunter's private hospitals will be on-hold as of Monday to free up staff to support the pandemic response. They will join staff from private hospitals in Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Wollongong, in a large-scale, state-wide vaccination effort, and to support workforce demands in the NSW public health system.
That includes Warners Bay, Lingard, Maitland, Hunter Valley, and Newcastle private hospitals.
NSW recorded 633 new COVID-19 cases, easily eclipsing the state's previous high of 478, as the Premier warned "we haven't seen the worst of it".
Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the state's COVID-19 Crisis Committee would consider tighter restrictions on people moving between the regions and to Sydney. Police Commissoner Mick Fuller wanted to make restrictions protecting the regions were as tight as possible, while ensuring they could be monitored, Mr Barilaro said.
As part of an expansion of COVID-19 operations across the state, 50 ADF officers were deployed to Newcastle and Dubbo each to assist police with enforcing the public health order from Wednesday.
Hunter New England Health confirmed that the cluster of Newcastle disability support workers who tested positive came from a single exposure site, but would not say where. Affected staff had worked while unknowingly infectious at homes in Lambton, Glendale, Adamstown, Gateshead, Wallsend, Nelson Bay, Hamilton, Maryland and Ashtonfield.
The chief executive of disability support agency, ConnectAbility, David Carey, said all residents had received one dose of vaccinations and most staff had also been vaccinated once.
"Many of these residents have severe and profound intellectual disabilities, and some don't understand what the pandemic is," Mr Carey said.
HNEH medical controller Dr Paul Craven said the health service was also working with Lifestyle Solutions, Solid Holistic Care, PHM Health, Samaritans, Ability Options and New Horizons to identify residents and staff who could have been exposed to the infectious workers.
It is understood that disability support providers are delivering tailored supports and affected premises and vehicles are undergoing deep cleaning.
Newcastle Anglican Bishop Peter Stuart confirmed that two more residents of Anglican Care's Jesmond Grove had tested positive, bringing the total number of residents with COVID-19 to six, along with two members of staff.
The facility remains in lockdown, he said, with residents undertaking daily testing and being supported to isolate in their rooms. "Our HR team are working hard to ensure we have adequate staffing and support at Jesmond Grove and are sourcing staff from across the agencies of the Anglican Diocese as well as external providers."
In Cardiff, residents living in one tower of a multi-block apartment building were told on Tuesday night they could not leave their homes until they were cleared after a family of three tested positive, but by 2pm on Wednesday health authorities confirmed that all affected residents had returned negative tests, while the affected family was being cared for off-site.
"It's a bit surreal," said one of many residents impacted by the initial orders on Wednesday morning.
Robyn and Glenn Maybury, who live in the affected block, said they were tested on Tuesday night.
"It's not a very nice feeling .. to be feeling like you're locked in and you can't get out at all," Mrs Maybury said.
"But I'm sure we'll get our negative results back fairly soon and we will be able to go out and do our grocery shopping."
She was prepared to forgo her daily walks with Jax, her fox terrier cross, and do some crosswords and stay in touch with family and friends over the phone.
"No one knows when we're going to get out of this," she said, speaking of COVID restrictions and the current outbreak more generally.
She wasn't sure in any case how comfortable she would feel about leaving her unit until the complex, or at least her building block, had had a deep clean, she said.
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