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Asia Today: Australian virus hot spot adds hospital beds

MELBOURNE – Australia’s coronavirus hot spot, Victoria state, moved to increase available hospital beds Thursday and reported a record 317 new infections.

The government had planned to restore hospitals to normal medical services by the end of July before infections began to rise in recent weeks.

Instead, the Victoria government responded to the latest spike by reducing non-urgent surgeries allowed in hospitals to increase beds available for COVID-19 patients, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said.

Two men in their 80s died in Victoria in the last 24 hours, bringing the national virus death toll to 113.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said the full impact of a six-week lockdown in Australia’s second-largest city, Melbourne, was not yet apparent because it was only a week old.

“It will take some time to bring that stability to the numbers and then of course to start to see a pattern where they are driven down,” Andrews said.

Australia's highest daily tally before Thursday was 288 in Victoria on July 10. Both exceed the previous record of 212 in New South Wales state during the first peak of the pandemic.

“It’s a big number. It needs to turn around," Victoria Chief Health Office Brett Sutton said of the 317 new cases. “In some ways, I expect it to turn around this week. But as I’ve always said, it’s no guarantee. It’s upon all of us to be able to turn this number around."

Given the week the lockdown has been in effect, the incubation period of the virus and the time for cases to be confirmed and counted, “we would really expect a plateauing in the next couple of days,” Sutton said. “But we cannot be complacent and expect that’s going to happen automatically.”

New South Wales, the only other state regarded as an active Australian virus hot spot, reported 10 new cases on Thursday.

Australia enjoyed similar success as neighboring New Zealand in suppressing the spread of COVID-19 in the early weeks of the pandemic. Australia adopted a suppression strategy while New Zealand pursued full eradication.

The strategy has succeeded in New Zealand, which has gone 76 days without a community-spread infection and has active cases only among quarantined people who traveled abroad.

Just as Australia was lifting its lockdown restrictions, breaches of infection controls in hotel quarantine led to community spread in Victoria state.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

India’s virus cases surged another 32,695, taking the nation closer to 1 million and forcing a new lockdown in the popular western beach state of Goa two weeks after it was reopened to tourists. The new confirmed cases took the national total to 968,876. The Health Ministry also reported a daily high of 606 deaths, taking total fatalities up to 24,915. The ministry said the recovery rate was continuing to improve at 63%.

— Tokyo reported 286 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, a record for the city, Gov. Yuriko Koike said, raising alarm Japan may be reopening its economy too quickly. The previous record for new cases in Tokyo was 243 on July 10. Japan has never had a total lockdown but the government asked businesses to close and people to work from home under an emergency declared in April. That has been lifted and restaurants, schools and stores have reopened and people are going back to work on packed commuter trains. One reason for the recent rise is an increase in testing, Koike said. Separately, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged a need to re-examine the government's “Go to campaign,” which offers discounts for travel within Japan, set to start next week. “We are looking at the situation with a high level of nervousness,” Abe said. Tourism is among the hardest-hit sectors in the massive fallout from the pandemic, causing the world’s third largest economy to tumble into recession. Japan has confirmed fewer than 23,000 coronavirus cases and about 1,000 deaths.

— South Korea reported 61 new cases, most of them tied to international arrivals. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday said the country’s caseload was now at 13,612, including 291 deaths. It says 12,396 people have been released from hospitals while 925 remain in treatment. The KCDC says 47 of the new cases were tied to people arriving from overseas but it didn’t immediately say where they came from. South Korea has been requiring two-week quarantines on all passengers arriving from overseas since April.

— New coronavirus infections hit an all-time high in Hong Kong on Thursday, with 67 cases reported for the day. Authorities said 63 were locally transmitted. They could not trace the source for 35 of them. The city has so far recorded 1,656 infections with 10 deaths. Hong Kong has tightened social-distancing measures in light of the recent upsurge, restricting public gatherings to four people and banning dining-in at restaurants past 6 p.m. Businesses such as beauty salons, gyms and amusement parks have been ordered to close for a week.

China’s economy has rebounded from a painful contraction to grow by 3.2% in the latest quarter compared to a year ago. The expansion came as anti-virus lockdowns were lifted and factories and stores reopened. The reported growth was a dramatic improvement over the previous quarter’s 6.8% contraction that was China’s worst performance since at least the mid-1960s. But it still was the weakest positive figure since China started reporting quarterly growth in the early 1990s.