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SYDNEY (Reuters) - 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 Jan. 15. The authorities said the ship would continue with its mission safely.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Michael Perry)