The usually relaxed vibe of the seaside town of Byron Bay evaporated this week with the news that a visiting family of three from Sydney had tested positive for COVID-19.

“There is a definite antagonism,” comedian, writer and Greens candidate Mandy Nolan said.

“I wouldn’t suggest going onto any of the community Facebook boards.”

Ms Nolan, who lives in nearby Mullumbimby, said many in the region had long feared COVID was coming to town. 

“We’ve been expecting this for some time,” she said.

“It was more of a case of when it was going to happen.”

Seven weeks into the Sydney lockdown, there are now multiple COVID-19 cases fanning across regional and rural parts of NSW.

During a crisis Cabinet meeting on Friday, the NSW government tightened some lockdown rules to help stem the spread of cases to the regions.

But for a growing number of regional NSW communities, COVID has already arrived.

The COVID-positive Sydney family, a 52-year-old man and his teenage children, told police they were in the Byron Bay area looking at real estate.

The man and his 19-year-old son have been charged with breaching public health orders and Byron has been plunged into a seven-day lockdown.

Mandy Nolan wearing black top with arms folded across chest.

Comedian Mandy Nolan says lockdown loopholes have allowed Sydneysiders to travel to Byron Bay.(

Supplied: Jay Penfold

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Ms Nolan said there had been too many loopholes in the rules that meant people could find reasons to travel the 750 kilometres north to Byron Bay.

“It kind of made our region feel quite vulnerable,” she said.

“We don’t have access to the hospital treatment that people might have in the city.”

Under the tightened rules, Greater Sydney residents will need to apply for a permit to leave the region and Sydneysiders cannot travel to their holiday homes, unless under exceptional circumstances, and then only one person at a time. 

Two health workers in full PPE standing beside the first of a long line of vehicles. They are carrying clipboards

Walgett residents line up to be tested for COVID-19.(

ABC Central West

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But COVID has already found its way to western NSW, forcing the towns of Bogan, Bourke, Brewarrina, Coonamble, Gilgandra, Narromine, Walgett, Warren and Dubbo into lockdown. 

Coonamble Aboriginal Medical Service CEO Phil Naden said a case there had seemed inevitable.

“The reality has now hit home that this spreads as quick as a grass fire,” he said.

A smiling man wears a purple t-shirt.

Coonamble Aboriginal Medical Service CEO Phil Naden says the region was expecting a COVID case. (

Supplied: Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW

)

A 27-year-old man, released on bail from Bathurst prison, travelled six hours home to Walgett in the state’s north-west, passing through Coonamble on the way.

At the time, the man had no inkling that a COVID-19 test he had taken in jail would soon come back positive.

The news was greeted with alarm in towns like Walgett and Coonamble, where around a third of the population is Aboriginal.

“We’ve got big family groups that share households, people that are either couch surfing or have no fixed place of abode,” Mr Naden said.

“You might have large family groups where you have got 10 to 12 kids and family members in one house.

The Hunter region, north of Sydney, was also plunged into a lockdown after an infected university student travelled from Sydney by train and spent five days in the Newcastle area partying with friends.

Two of those gatherings have been confirmed as “transmission events”.

A man jogs along an empty foreshore

Newcastle is locked down after a Sydney teen attended parties in the region while infected. (

ABC News: Anthony Scully

)

For Dr Paul Craven, the COVID-19 medical controller for Hunter New England Local Health District, it was the scenario he had been dreading.

“People talk about a ring of steel and yet there were still people moving,” he said.

“If they were all doing the right thing I think we would have been protected.

“The problem with human nature is that people break the rules.”

With 20 COVID-19 patients currently in hospital in the Hunter, Dr Craven said the region’s health services were coping well.

But he said there were concerns low vaccination rates could allow the Delta variant to take hold.

“If it spread quickly and the number of patients escalate there would always be a tipping point where we say we don’t have enough beds to care for every single person,” he said.

people in a line wearing masks near a building

People in Armidale queue at a walk in testing clinic following advice of positive cases in the city (

ABC News: Patrick Bell

)

Rural Doctors Association president John Hall said with so many regions now affected by COVID, he was concerned about the knock-on effects to rural health services should cases spread quickly.

“Most rural hospitals would struggle to cope with one critically unwell case but if there were multiple people presenting with COVID it would very quickly overwhelm those services,” Dr Hall said.

Medical professional leading peak body standing in the street.

Rural Doctors Association president John Hall worries NSW’s regional health system won’t cope with a major outbreak.(

ABC News: Selby Stewart

)

He is also concerned about the spread into Indigenous communities in western NSW, where vaccination rates remain low.

“We know that in the far west around Walgett the vaccination rate is one of the lowest in the country and it reflects the fact that vaccines haven’t been as available in rural areas,” Dr Hall said.

“We had a situation just a week ago where the state government was redirecting vaccines away from rural areas to Sydney because they were having more dramas there.”

He said medical exemptions were no longer being given for locum staff to travel across the borders, putting rural hospitals under pressure.

“In some towns, it’s not a case of not having enough doctors, it’s getting to the pointy end of not having a doctor at all.”

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The Indigenous community in western NSW is uniquely threatened by COVID-19.(ABC News)

Posted , updated 

NSW regions prepare for the worst as Sydney’s COVID outbreak spreads
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