Now, yesterday, 75 people died of COVID-19 nationwide. That is the highest single day death toll since the start of the pandemic, coinciding with this tragic fatality record and record numbers of COVID patients which is pushing our hospital system to the brink of collapse.
Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, joins us now from Melbourne. Minister, it’s always great to speak to you.
Victoria has imposed a Code Brown emergency for hospitals in Melbourne and several regional hospitals. Nurses in New South Wales, like everywhere in Australia, they’re exhausted.
Is the health system in danger of collapsing?
No, the health system is strong. The Code Brown in Victoria is the recognition of an external threat. And we know that the numbers in ICU and in ventilation are well within capacity.
The challenge, of course, as Australians right around the country know, is staff furloughing, and that’s why we’ve invoked what’s called the Private Hospitals Agreement. So as 57,000 nurses, 100,000 staff are available to the state systems to help support and supplement.
The other really important point is, we are seeing strong signs of a peak in the number of cases, and as those cases come down, then the hospitalisations and ICU also drop over time.
So, when you think of it this way, we’ve had roughly a million cases over the course of the last month, yet at the same time, we’ve had an addition of just over 80 to the ventilated patients. So, these are obviously the most ill patients.
So, Omicron is a milder disease but it has an impact on workforce, that’s why we’ve taken those important steps. But I really want to thank our amazing nurses and doctors, and all of our health professionals.
As the pandemic continues around the world, research is, of course, being done, and new developments and new treatments presumably becoming available. Are we looking at these sooner rather than later?
Yes, so just this morning, the TGA or the Therapeutic Goods Administration and Medical Regulator, has announced two new treatments that have been approved: Paxlovid by Pfizer, and Molnurpiravir by Merck Sharp and Dohme.
And we’ve got 800,000 courses of treatment, and these are oral tablets, and they’re antivirals. They’ll be prescribed by GPs. They’re targeted at those who are most at risk of moving from mild illness, or moderate illness, to serious illness, so in particular the elderly or the frail.
And that’s a really important next point of hope, actual treatment and, as you say, constant research has helped to deliver the vaccines and the treatments, and these two new treatments will add to the things that are already happening in our hospitals, which has meant we’ve got one of the lowest losses of life in the world.
Aged and Community Services Australia, they say that there are already more than 7,000 aged care residents infected with COVID-19. It’s expected that half of all aged care homes will be hit by the end of the week. What’s being done about this?
Yeah, so this is, as a national Government, one of our absolute top priorities, and so we have a 99 per cent vaccination rate amongst aged care workers. But what we’ve also done is a series of things to support staff.
Firstly, we have changed the contact arrangements, which have allowed more staff to return and to return earlier.
Secondly, we have provided over 60,000 shifts of surge support.
Thirdly, we’re providing the aged care national classification system workers, and then fourthly, we have the private hospitals that are able to support, plus millions of units of PPE, masks, gloves, gowns and over 6.1 million rapid antigen tests, including 300,000 yesterday.
Labor plans to provide free rapid antigen tests. Why aren't you doing that?
Well, in fact, the health system does have it, and that has been the case right throughout.
Over 59 million PCR tests. There are 70 million rapid antigen tests coming in from the Commonwealth. If they were to provide unlimited free rapid antigen tests to everybody, the supply chain would collapse. Hospitals, GPs, pharmacies, others would not be able to get them, and that’s not something they’ve been able to explain, they can't say how many.
What we’re doing is making sure it is free in the health system. There’s 70 million that we’re providing, 66 million will also be available free to pensioners and concession card holders through the pharmacies, and then the states and territories are also doing their bit.
But the Labor plan, unfortunately, doesn't have any numbers, but would lead to a collapse in supply chains and taking away these tests from those that actually need them the most.
You keep stressing the importance of boosters, and we keep seeing the timeframe between shots reducing. Are we going to just be getting boosters every three months for time immemorial?
And apparently there’s an Omicron-specific vaccine that’s been developed. Is the Government looking into that?
Yes, I have engaged on that with both Pfizer and Moderna, and that will still take some months for the variant vaccine to be produced. But if it is available, we’ll have access to it.
Right now, we delivered over 5.8 million booster shots, so that’s roaring along at, you know, an extraordinary amount, the highest rate of vaccination for any dose that we’ve seen during the course of the pandemic.
The next thing though, what we’re looking at is what will be the future requirements and it is possible that, just like the flu, there may be an annual vaccine. We don't have the answer to that yet. The world doesn't have the answer, but we do have some of the best scientists in the world who are looking at that.
So we’re prepared for all eventualities, that’s, I think, the really important point. And if there were an annual dose, it could be either the whole of population or it could be the vulnerable population, such as seniors.
But that’s why we’re bringing Moderna to manufacture in Australia, that’s one of the two mRNA vaccine manufacturers, and that’s all about preparing for all contingencies, and I think that’s important thing for Australians to know. Preparing for all contingencies.
As always, Minister, thank you for your time. Thanks for joining us this morning.
Thanks, and take care.