Genomic sequencing confirms link between NT’s current COVID outbreak and earlier cluster

Genomic sequencing has confirmed the Northern Territory’s current COVID-19 outbreak is linked to a previous cluster that was sparked earlier this month by an interstate arrival who lied on her border entry form.

The 21-year-old woman flew to Darwin from Cairns, in Far North Queensland, and later tested positive in the NT.

Her case was only discovered after a close contact, a 26-year-old man who had spent time in Katherine and Darwin, was identified as a positive COVID-19 case on November 4.

The man’s case triggered a lockdown in Katherine and a lockout in Darwin, during which three more positive cases emerged.

The woman was subsequently identified as the source of the initial outbreak and was fined more than $5,000 for failing to disclose a previous trip to Melbourne, which is a declared COVID-19 hotspot.

Restrictions in Katherine were eased on November 8 but the town, as well as the Robinson River remote community, were placed in lockdown on November 15 after two new cases emerged.

Since then, a total of 19 people — all of whom are Aboriginal Territorians — have tested positive to the virus.

Because of the gap between the first and second group of cases, authorities were unsure if the two clusters were linked.

But in a statement this afternoon, NT Health said it was encouraging to learn the two clusters came from the same source.

“Genomic sequencing results are in and confirm that clusters one and two in the NT COVID-19 outbreak are linked,” the statement said.

“This means that we are now dealing with one single outbreak with all cases from Darwin, Katherine and Robinson River epidemiologically connected.

“This is a really important piece of the puzzle, as we know that COVID was in the Katherine community between November 4 and November 13, and our health teams can concentrate efforts on finding the missing links and trapping the virus within the Territory.”

No new cases of COVID-19 have been recorded overnight, however authorities are expecting further test results from Robinson River and Katherine later today.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Chief Minister Michael Gunner said earlier on Thursday, noting the virulence of the Delta strain and the fact some close contacts had yet to be located.

“The next day or two remain crucial.”

Lockdowns in Katherine and Robinson River are currently scheduled to remain in place until at least Monday evening.

A Territory-wide mask mandate is set to end at the same time.

However, Mr Gunner said the mask requirements could be removed earlier if certain scenarios eventuate.

“We’d be open to lifting [the mask mandate] prior to 6pm Monday,” he said.

“If we get some more wastewater testing that’s negative, if we see a high testing rate across the Northern Territory, we get some confidence about no spread outside the Territory.”