Well, welcome everybody. I’m joined today by Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia. And pleased to be able to provide the information that ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, has provided the second green light that has been necessary to make boosters available to 16 to 18-year-old Australians.
What that means is they will be an immediate group of 380,000 teenagers who will be eligible to have the booster, this is the Pfizer booster which has been through both the TGA and, now, the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.
Those doses are in the field, they’re the same doses as the adult doses, they’re available and that is the group that has now passed three months since they’ve had their second doses.
In particular, though, that’s part of a broader group of 580,000 teenagers who are 16 and 17 years old. My daughter is one of them, and she has indicated she’ll be looking to make a booking in the coming days. And that’s what we encourage and urge all of our teenagers and all of our families to consider.
This is an important part of the booster program. And in particular, I would make this point that among our upper teenagers, our 16-19-year-olds, we have a 91.3 percent first dose rate, and an 88.2 percent second dose rate.
Amongst our younger teenagers, and 12 to 15-year-olds, we have an 83.7 percent take up, and 76.7 percent of those have had their second dose. So, we want to encourage all of those families, with all of those younger teens, to come forward for the first and second doses. It’s very important to complete the program.
And then, just in relation to our children, we are, in the next 48-hours, set to pass 1 million doses for 5-11-year-olds. That has been one of the fastest take-up rates in the world and it is already, on the advice I have, one of the highest rates of take-up. And I think that’s a really welcome and important thing.
At this stage 971,000 doses among our children, and that’s at 42.7 per cent of the population in that age group. We’d like done to continue. It has been advancing rapidly - more than Germany, Israel, the United States. The Australian kids have come forward, and parents have played a really significant role in that.
More generally, with the overall vaccination rollout, we’re- yesterday, we passed 50 million mark; today we are almost at the 50.5 million mark. We had 256,000 doses in the last 24-hours; we’re at 1.66 million in the last seven days - so one and two thirds million in the last seven days, and I think that that’s a very heartening sign.
And all up, we’re now at 50.45 million doses that have been delivered. And 95.7 per cent of Australians have had a first dose, and 93.5 per cent have had a second dose.
In terms of the boosters, I mentioned we’ve passed 8.4 million- 8.405 million doses, 213,000 yesterday. That’s 52.5 per cent of the eligible population who are three months or more from their second dose. And so, I think that that is a really significant uptake already. And I want to thank all of those people who’ve come forward.
Just in relation to rapid antigen tests, we’ve now seen a very significant normalisation of supply; widespread reports of availability confirmed by the Pharmacy Guild.
And I mentioned yesterday the CEO of Chemist Warehouse, who indicated they have strong, clear supplies and were meeting all of their requirements, both through the concessional rapid antigen test program, but with the public and any contracted supplies they have.
I would note that in terms of the concessional program for pensioners and for healthcare cardholders amongst others, that 3700 pharmacies are participating. We’ve already had over 850,000 concession cardholders, pensioners and others, who’ve come forward. And we’ve now passed the 3.5 million mark of rapid antigen tests in approximately 10 days.
And so that’s been a very strong take-up with good supply. And I want to thank all of those who were involved in the design and have been involved in the implementation - particularly the Pharmacy Guild and their leadership - I think, they’ve played a very important role.
So, I will turn on the epidemiology to Professor Kelly, but also of the significance of boosters for young people. But the message is really clear - boosters are very important to helping to protect you. But as we go forwards, we would encourage people, if they are still in that small group that have yet to have had their first dose, please come forward; or second dose, to please complete.
But the distance between first and second doses is closing every day – there are more second doses are being delivered than first doses, and the number of boosters is increasing at over 200,000 a day on week days.
Thank you, Minister, and good morning. So, just to, firstly, on the boosters for 16-17 year olds. We know that that age group, in particular, have been part of the program for the vaccination from the beginning - down to 16 for Pfizer for the primary course of vaccinations. So, it’s good to see now, that we can join them to that adult rollout of the booster program.
Essentially, those older age group of teenagers, the COVID acts in a very similar way to young adults up to- in 20s and 30s, so it makes sense for them to also get the booster for their own protection.
I would point out that, in that age group, the chance of having- of a severe dose of COVID, including and particularly Omicron, and including and particularly if you have had two doses of vaccine already, is very low. But there is a personal protective component to it.
But more importantly, it definitely it’s part of our transmission wall - to decrease the transmission in the community. We know that 16 to17-year-olds and young adults are those that have more friends, more social interactions and therefore have a higher chance of transmitting throughout the community.
So, with Omicron, that third dose is important, we know that from a personal protection point of view but also for transmission. So, I very much strongly support the ATAGI approach to this.
Of course, they've gone through all of the usual discussions they have about weighing up risk and benefit, and they’ve looked at that and come to the conclusion that the benefit outweighs the risk.
And so we’ll be going ahead with that and I’d encourage all parents of children of that age group; and all children, indeed, of that age group - 16 and 17 - to get that booster is quickly as possible.
I think, just on the epidemiology, we are past our peak in Australia in terms of the Omicron wave. It will not be the last Omicron wave we will have, and it will not be the last wave of COVID we will have.
We are learning to live with this virus, and that means that we have to have realistic expectations about what will happen this year, and probably subsequent years in terms of COVID circulating in the community.
I spoke at length about this at the Senate Select Committee yesterday, and happy to take questions on it. But I do believe that we will have another wave of Omicron in winter - and I think we will have a flu wave in winter for the first time in three- in the last- since the beginning of 2020.
And so these are part of our preparations at the moment. You know, to be clear, I hope I’m wrong about that. But that's the realistic expectation I have, and that’s the advice I’m giving the Government in terms of what we need to do to prepare as we learn to live with COVID. And that’s the advice I’ve always given in terms of that process.
Just a little bit on deaths, and I can give a bit more information, and I know there was some questions in previous press conferences this week. And there was a lot of discussion about death threats and so forth yesterday, in the committee.
We are looking very closely, and have always looked very closely at the number of cases we’re seeing at the severe end of the spectrum – so, in terms of hospitalisations and intensive care admissions, both of which have dropped significantly and substantially in the last week right across all states, and nationally - and also death rate.
The death rate from Omicron is 0.1 percent, .0.1 percent - 99.9 percent of people who get Omicron survive, and usually survive well without long ongoing problems.
There issues with long COVID, we understand that, and we’re finding out more about that all the time. There are issues with other longer-term effects. There are issues with other longer-term effects.
But the reality is, the death rate from Omicron is 0.1 per cent. 99.9 per cent of people who have contracted it, and there is approaching 2 million in the last month that we know about, and probably more that have contracted it that have not been diagnosed; 99.9 per cent of those are either asymptomatic, mild illness, or more severe illness.
And because of the better treatments, because of the better clinical care, because of the surge capacity we are put into the sector, because of our very skilled health staff working at the frontline, because of all of those things we have a spectacularly low rate of death.
Now, that is not to discount the fact that we have had a large number of deaths. When we have a large number of cases, we always expected and I’ve said here publicly, and in my advice to government, that that may happen, and it has happened, and that is- my condolences go to every single family that has experienced that over the whole pandemic, but particularly in the last month.
84 per cent of the deaths that we’ve experienced up to the end of January, 1103 deaths that were recorded in the National Notifiable Diseases system. From 15 December up until the end of last month, 1103 deaths, 84 per cent were in people over the age of 70, and 24 per cent over the age of 90.
It is extremely rare for young people to die from this illness. It has happened and that is very tragic. But I think we need to consider the actual facts of this, there have been many deaths in aged care and that has received a lot of discussion yesterday at the Senate Select Committee and in the media today.
We are looking to try to get more details about those deaths. It is not an easy thing. The numbers have been challenging in terms of getting detailed information from that situation. But we are absolutely committed to do that. I’ve been discussing that with Secretary Murphy today, we’ll be setting up a specific task force in the Department to look at that and to do everything we can to get more detail about the issues, particularly in aged care, but more broadly in the community related to those people who have passed away.
So that’s my commitment as CMO to do that. I've been speaking with one of my colleagues in one of the states, I’m not going to name the state but there is one state that is very much on board for assisting us with this, and that person has assured me that- the Chief Health Officer has assured me that we’ll be able to get at least some very good granular detail about those matters from one state, which will be able to be extrapolated to the rest of the country, I think very similar in different places.
I think that’s all I’ll lead with, Minister, so over to you for questions.
Great. Look, I’ll start with those in the room on the left-hand side as you face the lectern, and if you just work across the room please.
Professor, just going off the Committee yesterday, between a third to 50 per cent of aged care residents aren’t vaccinated- sorry, haven’t been boosted. How come the take-up is so low if we have in reached to 99 per cent of aged care facilities? Aren’t most of them now essentially not protected against the virus, given that they were one of the first cohorts to get vaccinated?
And just for the Aged Care Minister- sorry, just for the Health Minister, you and other ministers have said that rapid antigen tests weren’t approved until November, that’s why we haven’t seen a take-up, we’re waiting from the TGA before some of the orders got put in.
How come there’s a discrepancy in the language used here, when vaccines first came out we signed a memorandum of understanding with AstraZeneca six months ahead of any approvals and we put aside hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase vaccines that are still in clinical trials, but we didn’t do this for rapid antigen tests?
Sure. Look, I may say, if that’s okay please Paul. I think there are a number of assumptions in that question which were, respectfully, incorrect.
Just in relation to rapid antigen tests, the first of the rapid antigen tests for point-of-care were approved in 2020 – late 2020 - by the TGA. We actually began to use rapid antigen tests in aged care in August of 2021, and that’s a point that we’ve made on many, many occasions.
The Commonwealth has purchased, procured, and provided continuous supply of rapid antigen tests in aged care since that time, and we have now provided over 8 million tests in aged care and that’s been continuous since August.
And so we were in a position of planning ahead in procuring and that’s what we had done in relation to that.
We, and Paul will set out more generally that there was a difference of views about the utility, particularly given that PCR was the standard test that was recommended by the AHPPC, and underneath that, the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia.
Some states and territories were not supportive of using it and it wasn’t actually allowed under law for some considerable period of time. But we have been engaged right since the outset and that forward planning has allowed us to have that continue supply in aged care.
Just in terms of the numbers, and then I’ll let Paul address some of the other questions in relation to booster take-up. Approximately 190,000 people in aged care, the latest figures that I’ve had even since this morning, the updated reporting shows 125,000 have had their boosters, about 20,000 so far have not had any vaccination or have not had their second vaccinations.
So, when you take those into account that means that you’ve got a pool of about 170,000 that are eligible, 125,000 that have taken it up. So it’s about 35,000 that have not taken it up, and we’ll continue to encourage either the residents or their families to take this opportunity.
As you say, right across the sector 99 per cent of facilities that have been visited with remaining- that for facility-based reasons have not been able to accept visits so far. They’ll occur over the coming days. And so our approach is to continue to go back – that’s what Lieutenant General Frewen is doing – but we particularly want to encourage those families that for whatever reason have not taken up the booster option.
So, it’s about 66 per cent of residents that have taken up the booster, but about 75 per cent of those that are eligible for the booster that have taken it up. So just a slight difference between those two things, and a group of about 35,000 that have so far not taken up the opportunity.
And so we really want to say to the families, it is very important to provide that consent, to speak with mum or dad if they’re in a position to do that, or grandma or grandpa, depending on who’s the guardian.
And if you are in aged care and making these decisions for yourself, it is really important because it can keep you safe, it can keep you alive and it’s something we deeply want to encourage.
But it can also mean that you can see your own family members, because we know that the lockdowns in aged care have had such an emotional impact and we really want people to have that access. I apologise for the longer answer, but Paul.
Sorry, Minister, just going back to rapid antigen tests. Given that you’ve said they’ve been approved for aged care, why has the Government then put so much emphasis on this November date about, we didn’t order, because it wasn’t recommended for the wider-spread use?
That’s some language that I- there are two different things here, if I may. That point-of-care testing has been progressively approved, and all up we have 67 tests approved on the latest TGA advice that I have.
The self-care tests for use in the community by individuals were authorised to be used from 1 November. The point-of-care tests were available before then within medical settings or others where there was medical supervision.
And that was a process that had to go through and receive the support of the states and that ultimately has been done, and I’m pleased about that.
And we gave significant notice so as the suppliers would be in a position, and they were able to supply right up until Christmas and in many cases between Christmas and New Year. But then of course there was a global demand shock as a result of Omicron.
And so what you would actually see around the country in the lead-up to Christmas is there were very strong supplies available of that. But as we’ve seen in the UK, the US and elsewhere, right across Europe, there was that same global demand shock, significant supplier but supply increasing.
So respectfully, within the Commonwealth environment we’ve had that continuous supply for aged care with now over 8 million rapid antigen tests provided within residential accommodation facilities.
So I think the Minister has answered both of your questions pretty much. I think the important element of boosters within the aged care setting, one- there are the two reasons why we started rolling out the vaccine program altogether, and let’s consider that that booster is now necessary to protect against Omicron.
There is a protection from severe illness. There are very good reasons in aged care, where people themselves or their families, decide that they do not want protection against severe illness. They are on that palliative pathway, as has been discussed here before, and our role as medical practitioners and the role of the sector is to respect the wishes of people in that setting and to give them- and allow them to experience the last parts of their life in the way that they have chosen to do that.
So we respect the wishes of people and their families in aged care about their own personal protection. But we go through this discussion every year about influenza vaccine. There is the other reason, of course, particularly in aged care, as to why there is a vulnerability issue which can be addressed by immunisation, and that is the second component of immunisation about preventing transmission to others.
So it’s one thing for me to decide, I’m fine, I don't want to have that vaccine because I know I’m dying from cancer or whatever it is that I’ve got. But what about the person who’s sharing my room? What about the person that’s down the corridor? What about the staff that are looking after me every day? What about my access to my family in terms of visitors? They are different issues; they are complex issues.
It’s about consent. This is not mandated for residence in aged care, it is mandated and has been mandated, for the first two doses at least, for staff in aged care and in some states that’s been added the third dose as well.
But these are sometimes very difficult and complex conversations and, really, that has been an important part of the rollout to aged care.
The important fact is that has been available for 99 per cent of aged care residences, and therefore for every single resident in those aged care residences over the last few weeks, and that is a spectacularly important fact and an incredible effort to get to all of those places.
But that is important, that gap, as you pointed out, in terms of people who have not yet received, and we need to redouble that. And I know that the vaccine rollout is going back to each of those aged cares in the coming weeks, aged care residences in the coming weeks to talk through that again and to provide, again, a chance for vaccination.
In terms of rapid antigen tests, the Minister is quite right. There are two types: the point-of-care test has been around for some time. Self-test is very recent; there is good reasons – particularly in a low-transmission environment which has been the reality in Australia for the vast majority of the time since 2020, but has changed a lot in the last six weeks or two months – to rely more on PCR than rapid antigen tests.
So they’ve been decisions we’ve asked our technical experts to look at on multiple occasions, and most recently with their advice that came out with general principles about the use of rapid antigen tests just last week, so that’s available publicly.
Minister, can I ask a question in relation to.
On Monday, Minister, you said that 60 per cent of those who died were palliative and 25 per were unvaxxed or partially. Where’s that information?
And Professor Kelly, just- you were talking about a new task force and getting some granular information from a state. Can you explain both in more detail, please? Because they both seem rather curious- into what information- yeah sorry, go on.
That's information from the Department of Health which, in turn, has drawn it through the National Incidents Centre and from the states. That is the affirmed information we have.
And just to update it, it’s 61 per cent of those on the most recent data we have who have passed with COVID were in palliative conditions.
And amongst the people that had passed, it’s 19 per cent were unvaccinated and eight per cent were partially vaccinated or a total of 27 per cent, and those are the figures which the department provides. I believe they provided them directly to you this week in your request for a deep dive into figures.
Could you just repeat, Andrew?
You were talking about a task force but also this- you’re seeking some granular detail from the states. What exactly are you looking for that you should already know?
So, this is specifically related to aged care or to more broadly? Because in fact, it’s a more broader issue than aged care.
Please explain. Yeah.
Yeah. So, we have a national notifiable diseases system. There’s an agreement, long-standing for more than 30 years with the states that they will – they are the ones – they are collecting information in detail around infectious diseases, not just COVID but infectious diseases more broadly.
There is a minimal amount of data which they need to provide and they are continuing to provide that every day in terms of here’s a case, this is their age, this is their sex, and a couple of other pieces are coming regularly.
They do not, in normal circumstances, provide us whether people are in hospital or not. We’ve added that as another way of getting that on a daily basis as well.
The fact of death is also being provided to us on a daily basis. Other details about those deaths, where people live and whether they have chronic disease, whether they have been, you know, immunised or not, that is not being provided, particularly in this large surge over the last weeks.
Now, very pleasingly, talking to a particular state today, they’ve assured me that they will be able to provide, in some detail, the deaths within their state.
But the reality is that it has been difficult and that is not a criticism of my state colleagues in any way. They’ve been dealing with all sorts of other issues.
But because of the interest in the more substantial information about people that have died and because of the numbers, we are undertaking that as work we will undertake for the Minister and we’ve had discussions about that this morning.
We’ll return to the ordinary process of working across the room, given that we're doing this over video. If that’s all right, please.
Thanks, Minister. We’ve seen the leaking of damaging text messages against the Prime Minister this week and also reports today that he’s unhappy about internal struggles over preselection in Sydney. Is the Prime Minister 's leadership under threat?
No, look, I have to say as a Cabinet, it is arguably the strongest, most united Cabinet in the last 60 years since the early 1970s. That’s the truth of it.
I think everyone in his room knows, one of the frustrations I've had journalists put to me is, gee, from time to time we are a bit disappointed that nobody will speak against the Cabinet from within the Cabinet. And that’s the case. It’s arguably the most united Cabinet.
I frankly don't believe that this is from a federal minister. I don't know the veracity otherwise, but I do not believe it's from a federal minister. Probably the easiest thing for the journalist in question would be to release them, release all of the detail, all of the names.
If they’re not willing to do that, then share it with trusted people like Paul Kelly, Michelle Grattan. They could look at it, verify it, speak to anyone who has allegedly been responsible.
But I can speak for the whole of the Cabinet, I just say: release it in full, unexpurgated. Because there’s nobody in the Cabinet that is remotely worried about it being released, and there’s everybody in the Cabinet that would want it released.
I'm in a position where I’m a little later in my career that I can say those things, but I don’t frankly believe that there is a federal minister involved. More generally, the belief in the Prime Minister and the believe in the leadership is immensely strong, and the reason is here’s a country that has faced a global pandemic that has led to terrible human tragedy on a grand scale across the globe.
And Australia has not been unscathed. We’ve had human losses that we’ve been talking about that are profoundly tragic in each and every case. Each life matters.
But when you look back over the course of a pandemic, and you see that we have a country with one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with one of the lowest rates of loss of life, with over 40,000 lives saved compared with the United Kingdom and United States, and over 30,000 compared with the OECD average.
When you have the strongest economic recoveries, the big things that have occurred here under Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have been immensely important.
And that’s why we believed in them, that’s why, you know, if I had a blank sheet and I know everything that I know about the pandemic and I was asked to nominate the two people to lead the country at the start of the pandemic, I would pick Scott Morrison as Prime Minister and Josh Frydenberg as Treasurer. I don’t think I could be clearer than that.
Now, next question.
Minister, just on vaccines, you said this morning that you expected the definition of fully vaccinated to be expanded from two doses to three. The Prime Minister has previously said the issues of mandates, for instance, what settings you’d have to be fully vaccinated would be down to the state governments mostly.
Would you imagine that the list of settings where it’s necessary to be fully vaccinated would be, you know, with three doses in the future, would be the same as we’re currently seeing with two?
Or might that be a smaller list in the future with the three dose mandates or would you imagine as a setting potentially – for the Professor as well - where there’s one list of things you could do where if you’re not vaccinated- one list of things you could do with two doses and one list where you have to have three?
Sure. So look, I think that's a very reasonable question, and obviously, Professor Kelly has been engaged with discussions with ATAGI and AHPPC. So, I’ll let him comment in more detail.
But my expectation is that we’re likely to have from ATAGI over the course of, you know, the next week or coming weeks, advice that the definition of fully vaccinated will require three vaccinations going forward.
What that means is firstly, we already want everyone to be boosted. We already have enough vaccines in the country for everyone to be boosted, we already have enough vaccines in the field to meet the demand for everybody who wants a booster as well as first and second doses. So, we already want everyone to be boosted.
The next thing is, as the Commonwealth, we have not had a mandatory vaccination policy for Australians in general, the exception has been in relation to aged care workforce and healthcare, and I can imagine that that is likely to be transferred and some states have already taken steps under their public health orders. And I would imagine that if the definition changes, that other states and territories will do the same thing.
Beyond that, that would be a matter for the states and territories as we have always said. But look, the discussion we have been having, the difficult discussion about voluntary choice in aged care is an example of where people are making their own choices on their own circumstances.
What we’ve done as a country, I reckon if you ask people at the outset of the pandemic, who says we’re going to 95 per cent? That’s what we have done with our childhood vaccination rate.
But I don’t think many people would put their hands up to have said that. In my heart of hearts, I thought it was possible, but we never wanted to put a floor or a ceiling on the number. And so, our goal has always been and will continue to be as many as possible.
But think of all the expectations, I wonder if there are many people in this room who would have thought we'd get to 95 per cent on the first of January last year. And that's what we've done and so we'll just continue to push forward.
So I've had many discussions with ATAGI, particularly their executive and the new chairperson, Professor Nigel Crawford, spoke at the Senate Select Committee yesterday about this matter.
He introduced the concept of being up to date, rather than having: is it two, is it three, is it four? Because, you know, some people in the community, immunosuppressed- people with immunosuppression actually require four now to be fully vaccinated.
So rather than fully, talking about up to date, that's the terminology we use with other immunisations, you know, or childhood immunisations. Anyone who's a parent will know having that discussion with your GP or your vaccine provider about, you know, is your child up to date with their multiple different vaccinations. And I think that's the parlance we'll start to use.
That's certainly what we've talked about with ATAGI. They're still going through that process, as Minister Hunt said, about what up to date means at the moment, and they'll work through it in that way.
Can I just jump onto that just for sec, can I just jump in?
What does that mean, though? What does the reclassification mean? Does that mean that the certificate that we all have that shows that we're fully vaccinated will no longer be valid? Will that need to be changed?
And why are we moving the goalposts when the rest of the world is moving away from restrictions and mandates?
You go, Paul.
So we need to separate the mandate with the up to date business, please. The mandate, as Minister Hunter has said, at the national level, we have agreement at National Cabinet and in the Australian Government, and that's based on my advice around aged care and health care.
Other mandates are related, and vaccine passports and so forth are a matter for the states. So let's just separate those two things for now.
But if you reclassify.
If I can just finish. The whole world is moving towards three doses as being important because of the Omicron strain. And my discussions with ATAGI – and as I say, this is not finalised and they are working through that as the experts, as they should – is that up to date will be- there’ll be a decision about what up to date means, and then there will be a grace period to allow people to become up to date for those that haven't.
But as the Minister has mentioned, the booster program is rolling out really strongly and fast and has been expanded to anyone who has had a dose three or more months since their second dose are now eligible. And so they, you know, so that's happening.
I think most people, I've had my booster; I know the Minister has. If I've gone to my Medicare app, the three tick- the three doses are there. I've got a green tick. You know, that is in place already.
So I'll just work across the room still. I think Rachel is next.
Thanks, Minister. From what you're saying, a good proportion of the 35,000, roughly, aged care residents who have not had a booster yet have chosen not to have one. Is that then a failure to clearly communicate in a targeted way the importance of boosters for aged care residents?
Look, I think it's absolutely clear that we've had 125,000 out of approximately 170,000 who would be eligible.
As we've done through the whole campaign, we’ll continue to encourage people to take it up. Roughly three quarters of those who are eligible have taken it up, 66 per cent of the whole population, but 10 per cent have chosen not to be either vaccinated at all or not to have had their second vaccination.
And that is a recognition that in those circumstances, families make their choices. But we are encouraging. We are encouraging families or residents that are making their own decisions to take up the booster and to do this firstly for themselves, but secondly, as Professor Kelly has said, to help protect others.
And so we will continue to present the opportunity, continue to present the information, and to make it clear that Omicron, whilst it is less dangerous individually in terms of the likelihood of outcome, can still, can still take your life.
And that's something which we do not want to see so we're encouraging absolutely everybody and continue to.
But reporting having had boosters, there’s a large proportion of people who have been eligible for quite some time now. Do you need to change the messaging, because clearly what is being done is not quite working for those people?
Respectfully, we are engaged. Firstly, the question of: would we make it available? Yes. Have we done that? Yes. You know, those two things. Thirdly, are we seeing good take up? Yes.
You know, approximately 75 per cent amongst those that are eligible have taken it up. Do we want to see it higher? Yes, we do. But that is higher than the national average. And so we are seeing higher rates of take-up of boosters in aged care than the national average so far.
But we want to continue to push it, and that's why we'll go back. That's why we're working with providers, why we are working with the aged care services, why we're working with general practice, and why we're sending the message to families that it can protect your loved ones but it can also mean they help protect everybody else in the field.
So we're constantly, constantly refining. But I think it is important that we are honest that many have not chosen to take it up so far. We encourage all family members to provide that consent. We think it's so vital to protecting not just one, but to protect everyone.
Sorry, I’ve got just another question for Professor Kelly if I can. You mentioned yesterday in Senate Estimates that we're going to have another wave of Omicron in winter. We're also going to have a flu season for the first time really in a couple of years.
Is a fourth dose going to be a really vital part of our- a really vital way of combating this coming winter season for particularly aged care residents?
So that comes back to my previous comments about up to date. That is a live discussion in ATAGI at the moment about further doses and whether that should be for the more vulnerable groups, for example, as is happening as a trial.
I would point out, definitely as a trial, not a definite decision, in Israel and some other countries, particularly in Scandinavia. So that's information we're looking at very closely. In fact, we're having a meeting with Israeli counterparts again on Monday.
We've been meeting with them regularly throughout the pandemic and they've been very open in discussing these matters with us, which is helpful. There's a lot of work being done on vaccines and as boosters now internationally.
So both Pfizer and Moderna have announced that they are looking at Omicron-specific boosters, vaccines as boosters, for example, combining different variants of COVID into one dose and seeing whether that is a better thing.
So there are clinical trials at the moment. It's too early to tell whether they would be available for us before winter, for example, here in the southern hemisphere, or whether a standard, what we have now, vaccine could be used.
As the Minister has pointed out on multiple occasions, we have plenty of supply of mRNA vaccines in Australia to provision for that if it was required. But that's a decision that's yet to be made.
What I can absolutely say is important is that as when influenza vaccine becomes available, we will be pushing hard for that in our most vulnerable groups, which is similar to people that are most vulnerable for COVID, but also includes young children.
So we'll be having our usual but even stronger messages coming out over the coming months in relation to influenza.
Next, please. Up at the back.
Minister, the aged care sector is in crisis. Are you sorry for the way your government has handled the pandemic in the aged care sector? And will you apologise to residents whose quality of life has deteriorated and their families who haven't been able to see them for so long?
So look, we are sorry for every single life lost in death, whether it’s in aged care or whether it’s elsewhere. And you raise the point about quality of life, there is exactly this tension in what you’ve asked.
On the one hand, there is the physical safety. On the other hand, the very measure that you were arguing for in your first sentence is the very measure which leads to the challenge in the second sentence, and I respect that tension. And that challenge is of people being locked down.
I know Paul and AHPPC have been looking at this. That when you have a 99 per cent vaccination rate amongst staff, when you have an over 90 per cent vaccination rate- first rate- first doses amongst residents, plus the booster take up, all of these things are significant protections.
But at the same time, there have been, because of a pandemic – a global pandemic – cases which mean that the facilities are in lockdown. So of all the things that we face, that tension is the one which has perhaps most troubled me, because people who are in their very late stages of life are being restricted from seeing their loved ones.
And that care, that chance to say hello, and in some cases that chance to say goodbye, that comes from the very health restriction which so many people, on the one hand want, but on the other hand don’t want to see the consequences of.
So we do have to be honest that those two things come together and they come together with the fact that that which helps protect the health, can significantly diminish the quality of life.
And that’s why we’ve asked AHPPC to specifically review the question of lockdowns, and the extent to which they have are having an impact on the emotional health and the mental health.
Thanks, Minister. Professor Kelly, what is your expectation of the rate of death in aged care in the next couple of weeks? And your warning about a flu season and a winter Omicron wave; should we expect similar rates of death into the middle of the year?
So there will be more deaths in Australia, broadly. And we know, and I’ve already shared with you the statistics about who are dying. It’s mainly elderly people, or almost a quarter of them over the age of 90.
We know that our residents of residential aged care facilities are in that age group. So, despite our best efforts in terms of infection control; despite all of the things that the Minister has just covered in the previous question, there is a risk of that happening.
And those balance- that balance is difficult. These are ethical or philosophical questions, in a way, about these matters, and they’re hard decisions.
But I do expect deaths in aged care and elsewhere in the community over the next few weeks, particularly in elderly people, people over the age of 70, people over the age of 80, people over the age of 90. In fact, it’s 80 and above is by far the riskiest group with Omicron. So that happens.
We know that every year there are deaths from flu in exactly that same age group. And so we have not experienced the two together here in Australia since 2019, whereas the last flu season we had was a particularly flu season.
There was no flu season in 2020, hardly any cases at all. Only in the hundreds rather than the tens or hundreds of thousands of cases of flu last year. And this year again, virtually no flu.
In the northern hemisphere, there is flu. There is flu in some states in the US but not all; in some countries in Europe, but not all; in Canada; in Israel, we are seeing significant flu seasons. So we expect there will be flu this year, we expect there will be those difficulties in the same age groups.
But we have influenza immunisation. We have all of the infection control processes that protect against COVID also protect against flu. We have treatments for COVID coming through, including oral treatments for COVID. We will have oral treatments for COVID prepositioned, or very readily available, in aged care in the coming weeks, and definitely within- at the time of the flu season.
So there are new tools, or new bricks in the wall, of this containment of- against severe disease in particular, but also against transmission.
I just had one question
Alright. Last question.
So we’re seeing rapid spread in vulnerable Indigenous communities, and we’re hearing concerns around people being forced to isolate in tents, dilapidated sheds, and sporting fields.
How is this acceptable in a country like Australia? And does the country need to do more to provide support for people to isolate safely and humanely?
Sure. So look, let me address the first part, and Paul can address the second. In terms of Indigenous communities, we've worked very closely with the land councils and the Northern Territory Government to bring in new biosecurity zones.
We’ve updated them continuously. And then in the last 24 hours there's been a significant expansion on the advice of both the land councils and the Territory.
One principle that I've maintained is, before bringing in these declarations which have very significant movement restrictions on general communities as well as Indigenous communities, that it would have to be with the consent of the community and with the consent of the state government and- or the Territory Government in this case.
And so we have worked, therefore, with both the land councils and the Territory Government, and put in place agreed biosecurity zones. And they've been published and they cover a significant proportion of remote communities within the Northern Territory - and that's a very important measure.
The second thing is, of course, we have seen rates of loss of life in our remote communities which, by comparison with international remote communities, have been vastly lower. But any loss, any loss is a tragedy.
So again, we're continuing to encourage that vaccination take up. That is still the first and most important protection.
Then in terms of the capacity to isolate, I know that the states and territories are leading that, but Paul and the Commonwealth team are working with the states and territories to support and encourage that process.
So I've been providing probably too many letters to you, Minister, in relation to these matters to guide you in your decision making around the Biosecurity Act, and how that may be used to support these lockdowns that have been put in place by the Northern Territory Government.
I think the one I sent the night before last was multiple pages with a lot of detail, and raising some of the challenges you've raised in your question.
These are not new challenges for Indigenous Australia, particularly in remote areas, and we know that.
We recognise very early on in the course of the pandemic that we needed to have very close relationships with the Aboriginal Community Control sector; with the land councils, as has been mentioned, particularly in the Northern Territory; and, with state and territory governments in relation to this highly vulnerable group.
So we've enacted those and continue to do so. I've been to many of the communities that are included in this current one. So I have in my mind the people I've met over the years in those communities, and these are very challenging times for them.
And so we will do and continue to do as much as we can to support both the Community Control sector as well as the Northern Territory Government to protect people as much as we can, with those blunt tools that you've talked about - the public health tools of isolation and quarantine and so forth, testing and contact tracing - those things are still important.
Vaccination is a key component - not only two doses, but a third dose and for boosters as well. But the oral medications that I mentioned, there are two areas that we want to absolutely and very deliberately provide for in the coming weeks. Aged care we've mentioned; the second one is remote Indigenous communities.
I had a long discussion with a close colleague of mine who I've known for many years in Alice Springs during the week - I think last week now, the weeks run into each other a bit – but, about his opinion.
The reason why we're doing the biosecurity determinations and the isolation and so forth is to give time for that booster program to continue; to give time for the vaccinations to continue for those that have not taken a primary course; to give time to bring in the rapid antigen tests and other testing mobilities in large amounts in those places; to give time to have those treatments in place as well when they're needed; and also, to work through some of those other complex issues of isolation that you've mentioned.
Great. Look, thank you, everybody. It's been an important day with expansion to 16 and 17 year olds for access to the booster.
We now have over 380,000 young Australians, teenagers, who are immediately eligible, and this booster will provide them with more protection and will provide more comfort for their families. I want to thank everybody.
Take care. All the best.