Traffic marshalls direct cars at a drive-through COVID-19 testing clinic at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. Image Credit: AP

Sydney: Australia on Tuesday recorded one of its highest number of deaths in a day from COVID-19 as an outbreak of the highly-infections Omicron variant tore through the country which marked two years since its first infection of the coronavirus.

Though Australia’s states and territories are refraining from a return to the lockdowns which have defined the country’s pandemic response, the most populous state, New South Wales, extended a mask mandate by a month, an example of the continuous disruption brought by the virus.

The same state, which came out of more than three months of hard lockdown in October, had vowed never to return to social distancing measures since its population had met a target of more than 90% vaccinated. Omicron has since seen the country’s COVID-19 death and infection rates double in weeks.

The country recorded 75 deaths the previous day, short of its highest daily total of 80 the week before but among its worst of the pandemic. Most of the deaths were in NSW and neighbouring Victoria, home to the cities of Sydney and Melbourne and two-thirds of the Australian population.

Still, the authorities said the Omicron flare-up appeared to have peaked. Daily case numbers were up on the previous day, but hospitalisations appear to have steadied as more Australians receive their booster, they said.

The state of South Australia recorded five deaths but its lowest number of daily infections since the start of the year and “we’re absolutely delighted with that figure”, premier Steven Marshall told reporters.

“We are tracking extraordinarily well.” About two dozen COVID-19 cases were meanwhile recorded on an Australian warship headed for coronavirus-free Tonga, which was hit by a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami on January 15. The authorities said the ship would continue with its mission safely.

Australia has led international relief efforts, rushing to get water and humanitarian supplies to the nation of 100,000.

But officials in Canberra said 23 COVID-19 cases had been detected among the crew of the warship HMAS Adelaide, which is steaming towards the capital Nuku’alofa laden with aid.

Tonga is one of the few places in the world that remains COVID-free and Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said the relief effort would not be allowed to jeopardise that status.

Dutton said the ship would remain at sea while discussions were held with Tongan authorities to decide whether the crew would attempt “contactless” delivery of the much-needed supplies.

“We’re not going to put the Tongan population at risk, but at the same time we want to deliver aid as quickly as possible,” he told Sky News Australia.

New Zealand, France, Japan and China have also contributed to relief efforts in the wake of an event the Tonga government has described as an “unprecedented disaster”.