NEWCASTLE and the Hunter risk becoming the outlier as the state reopens, with falling COVID-19 case numbers elsewhere exposing the region's spread as responsible for a quarter of the latest cases.
NSW recorded 406 locally acquired cases on Thursday, with 103 coming from the Hunter and New England areas. The health district also recorded almost twice as many cases as former Sydney areas of concern on Thursday.
Health officials have pleaded with the community not to forsake masks and social distancing, and to put "unnecessary regional travel" on hold, as the state nears 80 per cent double vaccination and a range of fresh freedoms as early a Monday. Those new freedoms may include allowing Sydney people to rejoin the regions in travelling freely if vaccinated.
Public health physician Dr David Durrheim described the result, the first time the Hunter has passed 100 cases, as "a very big COVID-19 day in the region".
He said the role vaccination was playing had become clear in the split among positive cases.
"If we reflect on yesterday's 103 cases amongst those that were vaccinated is a very interesting story," Dr Durrheim said.
"56 per cent of people had no vaccine. Probably not surprising, they're not protected. 27 per cent of people had only one dose ... 17 per cent of people had had two doses and their infection was mild, they had very mild symptoms."
Dr Durrheim said it had been "fantastic" to watch double dose figures rise almost 10 per cent in the past week.
Single dose vaccination figures for those 15 and over offer some solace in the region, with 89 per cent in Newcastle and 66.5 per cent double jabbed.
Port Stephens has passed the 70 per cent double vaccination mark, with 94.9 per cent awaiting their second. Lake Macquarie's 95 per cent first dose figure compares to 68.9 per cent with both, while Upper Hunter shire leads the way with more than 95 per cent first doses and 76.7 with full protection.
Across NSW 91.1 per cent over 16 have had a first dose, and 76.5 per cent a second.
Dr Durrheim said it was clear why cases were falling in Sydney as the Hunter grappled with rapid growth in its case load.
He pointed to the fact full vaccination thins viral load, and thus infectiousness, as well as reducing severity of symptoms as a factor.
"The key issue is vaccination rates," he said. "We see that our vaccination rates are below those in Sydney and while theirs have gone up very rapidly, ours are now starting to catch up.
"We had a slow, late start because of vaccine availability but we are catching up and in the last week we have seen a very encouraging 10 per cent increase in two-dose coverage across the Hunter region."
While making clear full vaccination offers the safest path through the region's COVID quagmire, Dr Durrheim said it was crucial that people took responsibility and avoided gathering in groups where possible despite relaxed rules.
He urged people to consider putting off any unnecessary travel, and urged them to stay vigilant with the arsenal of measures that have worked so far in the pandemic.
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"It's very important to realise at this stage this is not the time for relaxing unnecessary regional travel," he said.
"It's also not the time to abandon mask wearing. Masks are definitely playing an important role in keeping us safe, an extra barrier of protection."
"We need to all take control for ourselves of the situation, and these are the measures that are going to give us control."
None of the state's six deaths fell within the Hunter.
South Western and Western Sydney, which had been traditionally racking up more daily infections than the Hunter, added 62 and 61 cases respectively on Thursday while the Central Coast had 18. The Hunter has racked up 1995 cases since August 5. Of its new detections, 53 were isolated throughout their infectious period, with 41 active in the community and nine under investigation.
Raymond Terrace added seven cases, trailing only Tamworth and Taree.
Multiple cases also emerged in Raworth, Rutherford, Woodberry, Lambton, Wallsend, Bar Beach, Mayfield, Merewether, Branxton, Cessnock, Greta, Windale, Barnsley, Belmont and Macquarie Hills.
Further afield Oxley had seven cases, there were three in South Tamworth, nine in Taree and three in Forster.
The health district's individual cases fell across East Maitland, Largs, Metford, Maitland, Karuah, Curlewis, Gunnedah, Glenthorne, Belmont North, Charlestown, Cooranbong, Edgeworth, Gateshead, Warners Bay, Abermain, Cliftleigh, East Branxton, Kearsley, Weston, Maryland, Stockton, Fletcher, Jesmond and West Tamworth.
Midcoast had 13 cases, Gunnedah had two and Tamworth LGA added 19 to the health district's tally. Dr Durrheim said the Tamworth cases were isolated while infectious and had been spread through families and social circles, not workplaces or random encounters.
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