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Canberra Press Conference, 15 January 2022, on $10M boost to increase participation in cancer screenings, booster shots, COVID-19 cases and vaccination levels

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt and Professor Paul Kelly at the Canberra Press Conference, 15 January 2022, on $10M boost to increase participation in cancer screenings, booster shots, COVID-19 cases and vaccination levels.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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Good morning everybody. I’m pleased to be joined today by Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia to provide an update both on the vaccination programme, and in relation to the progress of the COVID-19 cases around Australia. In particular, there are real signs of hope today.

We have now achieved the 95 per cent vaccination rate for 16 plus, and we have just had a record three-day vaccination period of over a million vaccinations, not just for the rollout, but for Australian medical history. So, Australians are stepping forward. Our vaccinators are doing their work. That’s helping to protect Australians, and that is linked, of course, to the hospitalisation, serious illness, ICU and ventilation rates, which Professor Kelly will address.

First, I want to start, in particular, with the vaccination rates. We have achieved the 95 per cent vaccination rate. That is often referred to as a full vaccination level, but we want to go further. We want to continue to encourage Australians to come forward, and to see that, which is a figure that has surpassed almost all, almost all possible predictions that were made at the outset of the pandemic, and that the rollout is an achievement for all Australians.

But in particular, for everybody associated with the rollout. And above all else, our vaccinators, our nurses, our doctors, our pharmacists. Pharmacies passed over 4 million doses yesterday, and we’re seeing in the order of 250,000 doses a day in primary care alone.

We have 92.5 per cent second doses, and those numbers are continuing. And very significantly, we now have a rolling seven-day average of the highest rates of vaccination, not just through the rollout, but on record for over-60s, over-70s, over-80s and over-90s. So the very people who are most in need of the boosters are the ones that are coming forward. And on that front, yesterday we had over 339,000 vaccinations, and we now have a rolling seven-day average of vaccinations over 1.91 million vaccinations.

So, over 1.9 million vaccinations in seven days, and in three days, 1,032,000 vaccinations, the highest at any time during the course of the pandemic. The highest on record in Australia at any time in Australians history.

In relation to boosters, 245,000 boosters yesterday. We’ve now passed 4.86 million boosters, or 52.6 per cent of the eligible population. That is rocketing up, and I want to thank everybody for coming forwards, and all of our doctors and our pharmacy- pharmacists.

Our state providers, Indigenous providers, and Commonwealth providers over and above that. With regards to children, I’m very heartened by the fact, another record day yesterday. 57,840 children were vaccinated in the 5-11 age group, and that now takes it to over a quarter of a million children in 5 days. 255,000 children have come forward with their parents to ensure that they’ve been vaccinated. And there are 1.2 million doses that have been delivered for children. So, there’s almost a million doses available in fridges for children, so plenty of opportunity.

If your child hasn’t been vaccinated, please keep coming forwards. It's going to protect them, and it's going to protect, in particular, all of those in the community. So it has that double effect, as Paul has explained on many occasions.

Finally, just in terms of cases, I do want to make this point; that there are real signs of hope. And it's a very challenging time. It's a challenging time for the world. We saw that in the last few days, the global official numbers have passed 4 million, up from 500,000 a day before Omicron. And that's the official numbers, and we know that the global numbers are inevitably vastly higher than that. At the same time, and Paul will provide more information in- looking at the work of the AHPPC and the hospital analysis that we've done.

But what we're seeing is that the total numbers on ventilation at the moment are 124. This is an increase of 74, despite almost a million cases since mid-December. And so to see almost a million cases in total, but a net increase in the number of people on ventilation up from- sorry, a net increase of just over 70 from 54 to 124 is an extraordinary testament to the power of vaccination to prevent serious illness. So if you haven't been vaccinated, please be vaccinated.

The very last thing I want to do is announce $10 million in funding for cancer screening, and this is to support research into lifting our already very high rates in breast, bowel and cervical cancer screening project right across the country. We know, for example, that just in terms of bowel cancer, if we can lift our rate of screening from 45 per cent to 60 per cent between now and 2040, we are likely to save over 80,000 lives. And so screening saves lives, it's an important message.

It's an important part of maintaining our general public health over and above what we're doing with COVID. I want to thank everybody, in particular passing the 95 per cent vaccination rate for over 16s, and a record three-day vaccination rate of over a million, 1,032,000, the highest on record not just through the rollout in the pandemic, but in Australian history.

Professor Kelly?


Thank you, Minister. Firstly, on those screening programmes the Minister mentioned, extremely important. Anyone who gets a letter from me, personally signed, to remind you of going into your- in for either your cervical cancer screening or your bowel cancer screening, please do not ignore those letters.

They're sent to you because I really very personally care for that and want that to happen. Just on those grants, it was very pleasing to see, at least for two of those grants - Minister, I'm not sure if you're aware of this - where for- the lead investigators were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. One of them was an ex-student of mine. Very happy to see that she's going on with that great work in cervical cancer prevention in First Nations people.

In terms of the actual- of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are signs for hope. We know from multiple waves around the world, including here in Australia, there is a cadence to them.

They go up, they peak and they go down. And when that actually occurs is difficult to predict. But the- all the predictions are now- the actual forecasting based on actual numbers of cases, particularly in New South Wales, but also in Victoria and ACT, leads me to believe that we are close to the peak of this wave in terms of cases, recognising that there are- is under diagnosis through our PCR system, we know about that.

But I think that is- has either occurred or will occur in the coming couple of weeks in those jurisdictions and not long after in the other jurisdictions that have outbreaks at the moment. Obviously, Western Australia is another story when they do start to get cases, it will be later on. But for most of the rest of Australia, we are still on that upward curve.

We may be plateauing and then there is a downswing of cases after that. We're not through it yet. I think there are still going to be large numbers of cases diagnosed in Australia over the next few weeks. The Minister has already mentioned the effect of that on our hospital system, intensive care, ventilation and so forth.

We are plotting that very, very carefully every day, checking that data. But every week there is a published summary of that, the common operating picture, that's been going for well over a year now. And if we look at every single state and at the national level; no state or at the national level has reached anywhere near that- a strain that we would be concerned about in terms of numbers of cases in hospital. And as I said, at least in a couple of the large states, that seems to be slowing down already.

In terms of intensive care, that is under pressure in some states. We're aware of that. We have surge plans in place. They are being enacted right now, and I'm confident that we will be able to cope with that in the coming weeks. In terms of what we have outside of the hospital system- oh, sorry, one more thing on intensive care, I think a very important message: We are seeing an epidemic of the unvaccinated in young people.

We are seeing that in intensive care admissions. And so anyone of any age should be lining up to have that primary course of vaccination, and the boosters, and very importantly, the children, five to 11, who started this week. In the over-50s, we have such a high rate of vaccination that many of the people in intensive care, for example, are vaccinated. But they are also, we're noting, people with many chronic illnesses. And so we know that they are the ones that have been at severe risk all the way through the pandemic.

It's still the same with Omicron. And for those for those patients, we do have treatments available. We have treatments in our national stockpile. They've been put through to all of the states and territories for their use. They are being used.

In terms of sotrovimab, one of the intravenous measures that can be done to prevent severe disease, particularly and exactly in that group of people, older people with chronic disease. And so that is being used and needs to continue to be used. And I spoke about that with my colleagues at AHPPC yesterday in terms of making sure that that is being used particularly and specifically in aged care outbreaks.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be further announcements about oral medications that are currently being reviewed by the TGA. It's a very good development and news there, but I won't pre-empt the TGA's full independent regulatory assessment. But these are these are other signs of hope to add to the ones the Minister has given. We have our vaccines; we have some treatments.

There are more treatments on the way, and the actual curve is peaking, not time to stop all of our other public health and social measures and our test, trace, isolate and quarantine, but there are signs of hope today.



Thanks very much, Paul. Look, I'll start with those in the room. If you could just identify yourself and start on the left, thank you very much, as you're looking at us and- please proceed.


Rachel Baxter from 9News. Firstly, Professor, on death rates. Is the nation's low third dose coverage enabling the rapid spread of Omicron?

And given the high death rates in New South Wales that we've seen in the past week, do you still believe Omicron is a more milder form of the virus, or is the high number of deaths simply a reflection of high case numbers?

And just if I can, for you, Minister Hunt; looking at aged care facilities, the sector already had low workforce numbers prior to the pandemic, we knew that, came out of the Royal Commission. Do you think that these changes that were made this week in terms of isolation rules will be enough to bolster the workforce?


So- I'll start, Minister. So, in terms of the of the booster vaccinations there, they are rolling out incredibly fast, which is fantastic. We knew, though, that it was not possible to reach the very high levels of boosters in time to affect this wave.

That was just not possible, physically giving out so many vaccinations. And as the minister has said, hitting records pretty much every day now in terms of vaccinations. We do need to get to that high level of boosters around the 80 plus per cent before that will show a definite effect against Omicron, just like it did with the first two doses against previous vaccines. So that's our aim.

We're heading way towards that and we're going to achieve that. I'm absolutely convinced we will. And the second part of the question was- oh, the death, yeah. So, look, it's terrible that people are dying and my condolences to all of the families that are affected.

I will pick you up on a very important point, though as an epidemiologist, the rate is extremely low. The Minister mentioned the rate of ventilator patients at the moment only- has gone up, during a period when we've had over a million cases.

So the rate of severe disease is extremely low. However, with so many cases around, we are going to see a rise, and we've been very clear and distinct about that. I've spoken about that on many occasions. We will see, and have seen, a rise in deaths. We will see, and have seen, a rise in hospitalisations and intensive care. But as a rate, it's much less than in previous times. And we have those surge elements that I talked about in terms of coping with the hospitalisations and ICU. And we have other tools now coming on board to prevent death in people that are most at risk of that.

For young people, the best thing you can do is get vaccinated. For older people with chronic disease, be careful at this time. I’m advising that to my older relatives, but also you’ll have availability of treatments.



Look, firstly in relation to boosters, we are at over 4.86 million boosters, and we are seeing that daily booster rates which are the highest of any of the first, second or third rates during the course of the pandemic. So, just yesterday in terms of boosters, 245,000.

And so Australians are coming forward in massive numbers to be boosted at a higher rate than the highest first or second dose days consistently now. And that- in the middle of January, in the early part and in the middle of January, with people who are still on leave, with many who are furloughed, that's an extraordinary achievement. And we're seeing the primary care of the GP's and pharmacies delivering approximately 250,000 a day, and the states are ramping up what they're doing, and I want to thank them for that.

The next thing is in relation to aged care. Again, we really thank our aged care workers. We have one of the lowest rates of loss of life in the OECD in our aged care sector, and that's a real tribute to all of the measures that have been put in place. Three sets of actions. One is in relation to vaccinations and the- we have an over 99 per cent vaccination rate for our workers.

So, effectively a full vaccination rate right across that sector. But we're now at over 1750 facilities that have had boosters, and that's on track for being completed well ahead of the planned and expected schedule, so that's rolling out rapidly.

The second area is in terms of PPE, over 5.6 million rapid antigen tests provided to the aged care sector, which helps with workforce. It's a very important part of assisting them, that’s a continuous supply. And then- that also includes gloves, gowns, over 10 million distributions recently to the aged care sector and over 100 million all-up, masks. That's a continuous process.

And then thirdly is specific workforce measures, and within that there are five pillars to what we're doing with aged care workforce.

The first is the changed contact and furloughing arrangements, which I met, along with Minister Colbeck, with the aged care sector this week, and they indicated that that was an important contribution already having effects.

Secondly, we have surge workforce, which is available. That's provided over 60,000 shifts in aged care facilities around the country. Thirdly, we're making the ANEC workforce available, which will be an additional support going forwards. And fourthly, we have returning workforce. The former chief nursing and midwifery officer, Deb Thoms, has returned to, in particular focus on that programme of bringing people back in. Whether that's to hospitals, general practises or aged care.

And then finally, we have the private hospitals partnership with the private hospitals in the states, and that can be drawn upon for aged care surge staff. So there are challenges, but our aged care staff are doing an amazing job and our facilities. But those actions across those three fronts are helping to provide that additional support and protection.

And then we might come.


Taylor Aiken from Seven News. Minister, we've seen some countries overseas begin the rollout of a second booster shot. What is Australia's position on that?

And professor as an epidemiologist, what is the data saying at the moment about waning immunity, and is there a risk of over-vaccinating?


So, Taylor, we'll continue to follow the medical advice as we've done. That's what's helped get us to now, with 95 per cent, one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, which has made a massive difference to the serious illness and ICU ventilated cases and the loss of life during what's been a global Omicron surge and outbreak.

And so if that's recommended, we have the doses to do it.  And I think that's the critical point. We purchased, for this year, 60 million Pfizer and 15 million Moderna. And so that's 75 million doses all up. And we wanted to make sure that we had spare capacity, and the ability to cover.

In addition, we are seeing good progress on Novavax with recent fresh data, and there’s 51 million doses of Novavax if the regulator were to approve that, and that decision is expected in the in the coming 10 days.

Professor Kelly?


Thanks, Minister. So, firstly, as the Minister said, we rely very heavily and appropriately on ATAGI, the ministerial advisory committee on immunisation. They are continuing to meet weekly.

I have many more conversations with them than those weekly meetings. And they give us very high level- you know, I would suggest amongst the best in the world advice in terms of vaccination. So they will absolutely deliberate on fourth or subsequent doses.

At the moment, the only country that I'm aware of that has an actual programme of this is Israel. I spoke to the Israeli Ministry of Health on Monday. We have had regular meetings throughout the pandemic. It's been very useful to swap things. We teach them some things, they teach us some things and it's been very valuable.

So I asked about that fourth dose. They're keeping that very tight, to high severity people with a higher risk of severity. So older people, I believe it's over-60. There are people with chronic diseases, particularly those that lead to immune compromise, and health care workers. They've started with that. They're still evaluating that programme, and they've promised in the coming weeks to share that evaluation with us, that'll be very helpful. In terms of can you have ever have too many vaccinations, I think general principle, no.

But I think it's some of the things that the Minister touched on that is important. We have we have contracts in place for plenty of vaccine. Making sure it's the right vaccine if we go for subsequent boosters will be an important question, and that's absolutely in front of ATAGI now and they will advise us.


All right. Look, thank you very much. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of our pathologists and our health care workers. Our pathologists have been working for two years, literally around the clock. Our general health care sector, our GPs, our pharmacists, and all of those nurses, doctors, carers, cleaners right across the system, everybody involved. They've kept Australia safe and there are real signs of hope today.

We've crossed the 95 per cent threshold for 16+ vaccinations. We have had over a million doses delivered in a three-day period, the highest, not just through the pandemic, but on record in Australian history. And as Professor Kelly has said, there are very clear signs of stabilisation and operating within the system capacity in our hospitals. And so it's a challenging time, but what we know is that it's challenging times for the whole world, with over four million cases a day.

And Australians are rising to the occasion, and I want to thank everybody. Take care. We'll continue to encourage people to be vaccinated, but they're doing an incredible job. Thanks very much and we will get through this. We've done it before. We'll do it again.


Before you go can I (inaudible) Novak Djokovic, is there a risk that someone who is unvaccinated can excite anti-vaccination sentiment?


Look, I'll respectfully not comment on the case. I apologise for that. It's before the courts, and so I don't want to add to the commentary. I'll just respect the court process at this point in time.

Take care, thank you very much.

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