Australia's Victoria logs 5 COVID-19 cases amid lockdown, vaccination demand surges

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FILE PHOTO: Coronavirus testing on the first day of a seven-day COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia's Victoria state reported five new local COVID-19 cases on Saturday amid a strict lockdown, as people rushed to vaccination centres, causing long lines and technological glitches.

The infections bring the latest cluster to 35, but the number of exposure sites visited by the infected people has expanded to more than 150, putting thousands at risk.

Victoria went into the weeklong lockdown on Thursday night, the state's fourth in the pandemic, forcing residents to remain at home.

"We are taking this outbreak day by day," Victoria's commander of its COVID-19 response, Jeroen Weimar, told a news briefing.

The outbreak was caused by a traveller who left hotel quarantine in South Australia state after testing negative but later tested positive in Melbourne.

People lined up for several hours at vaccination centres on Saturday, trying to book a shot or get one on a walk-in basis. A designated state hotline for booking has crashed continually since Thursday.

This week, Victoria became the first state or territory in Australia to administer more than 40,000 vaccine doses in a day. On Friday, there were a record of nearly 43,500 doses administered.

SPORADIC PROTESTS AND ARRESTS

Police said they had arrested 14 people on Saturday at various anti-lockdown and vaccination protests across Melbourne.

Two police members sustained minor injuries during one of the arrests and one of the alleged offenders was also injured, the police said in a statement.

About 150 people protested in the city's centre and 55 fines were issued. All public gatherings are banned under Victoria's lockdown restrictions.

"The virus does not respond to protests," Victoria's Health Minister Martin Foley said. "Protesting against a virus is not going to work. And if you do, you are breaching the public health orders."

Getting a coronavirus vaccination is one of the five reasons for which Victorians may leave their houses. The others are essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping and exercise. Shopping and exercise are limited to two hours per day.

Australia has struggled with a slow vaccine roll out and rising vaccine hesitancy because of the country's success in virtually eliminating the virus. The country has reported zero local cases for 94 days this year, while numbers have remained in the low single digits on most other days.

Australia has effectively contained all past outbreaks through speedy contact tracing, snap lockdowns and strict regional border controls, helping keep its COVID-19 numbers relatively low, with just over 30,070 cases and 910 deaths.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by William Mallard and Kim Coghill)