By Renju Jose and Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia posted its lowest one-day rise in new COVID-19 cases in more than three weeks on Thursday, stoking hopes that a second wave of new infections gripping Victoria state is finally being brought under control.
Australia, once heralded as a global leader in combating COVID-19, has struggled to contain an outbreak in the country's second most populous state, which has seen triple digit daily new cases for weeks.
But Australian states and territories on Thursday reported just 292 new infections in the past 24 hours, down from 428 detected in the previous day and the lowest since July 20.
"We now believe, cautiously, that we have early signs of the flattening of the curve," Australia's Minister for Health Greg Hunt said in a televised media conference.
The bulk of the new infections again came in Victoria, which detected 278 new infections in the past 24 hours, down from 410 a day earlier.
Australia's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW) reported 12 new cases, while Western Australia said two people have been diagnosed with the virus. Both, however, were already in hotel quarantine.
Australia has identified about 22,500 COVID-19 cases while the death toll rose on Thursday to 361 after nine fatalities from the virus were recorded in Victoria and NSW.
The slowdown in new cases comes a week after authorities imposed a total lockdown across Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, including a night curfew, restrictions on people's daily movements and large parts of state economy ordered to close. Nearly 5 million people in Melbourne have been confined to their homes except for essential reasons for more than a month.
Neighbouring New South Wales state is also on alert, having reported daily new infections in the teens for the past several weeks.
Officials warned a failure by people there to observe social distancing guidelines could fuel community transmission, as they scrambled to trace several clusters stemming from schools and restaurants.
(Refiles to fix number of cases reported on Wednesday in third paragraph)
(Reporting by Renju Jose and Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell and Lincoln Feast.)