Acting Chief Medical Officer press conference about COVID-19 on 19 December 2020

Read the transcript of Acting Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly's press conference about COVID-19 on 19 December 2020.

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PAUL KELLY:          Good afternoon everyone, Paul Kelly, Acting-Chief Medical Officer here in Canberra. Just giving an update on the situation of the Coronavirus pandemic. To put us all in context, as always, there are a lot of cases going on in the world right now, we are up over 75 million cases, 1.6 million deaths. Almost every country is affected. And after a good run here in Australia over the last few weeks, unfortunately we do have an outbreak, as people will be aware on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. It’s a place I know well, I did a lot of my growing up there. My heart goes out to the people of that area and as we have heard recently from the NSW Premier, there will be public health order restrictions from tonight for the next few days, to try and get on top of that emerging outbreak.

So there’s been 23 new cases in that area, over the last 24 hours to 8pm last night.  And I would give a shout out to the community there in the Northern Beaches. You're turning up in huge numbers to get tested. That's absolutely what we need right now to find out how this virus has spread. And also to local businesses, even the Australian Hotels Association, who has worked with pubs and clubs in that area to make sure that people are safe and most of those businesses have decided to close before this order. Also, churches, I understand, of various denominations and the Buddhist temple as well have decided to restrict their services over the next few days.

So we've all learnt together and we're all in this together over the last few months. We know what needs to be done. And the New South Wales health authorities are doing exactly what's needed. They're using that rings of containment approach.

So we've got the borders and quarantine being very strictly adhered to.

We've got personal behaviours that are being reinforced about washing your hands, cough etiquette and so forth. Stay at home if you're sick.

We've got to test, trace and isolate happening in large numbers in that area in particular.

And now that decision to move to more restrictions over the coming days back to where Sydney was in March and not largely since then. So I really want to stress that anyone who has been in the Northern Beaches, wherever you are now, to consider- to look at the advice on the New South Wales Health website and make sure that if you have been in any of those venues that you do get tested, whether you have symptoms or not, and those with even the most mild symptoms do get tested as soon as possible. This is how we'll know whether the virus has spread outside of that LGA.

And it's also a call out to all Australians, but particularly those in Sydney, to download the COVIDSafe app. If you haven't already done so, many millions of Australians have done so and make sure it's turned on. We've made improvements over the last few months in relation to the app. This is exactly the situation where the app will come into its own. But it will only come into its own if people have the app installed on their mobile devices and switched on. So please do that, that it will really assist our disease detectives in the coming days.

In terms of Commonwealth assistance, we are reaching out. I'm having- several times a day having discussions with Dr Kerry Chant, the Chief Health Officer in New South Wales, to discuss the situation, to give advice and to hear from her personally what is happening and her thoughts on the matter. The AHPPC is meeting everyday again. I'll be going to a meeting straight after this so we can discuss this matter with all states and territories who are all making their own decisions in relation to their border arrangements.          

We’ve- particularly after yesterday declaring the LGA of northern beaches a hot spot, have put it in place all of the supports that we can and should be giving to aged care facilities in that area. As we know, there is one retirement village with an aged care facility beside it at Japara in Bayview, which has had two cases in the retirement village as well as one of the staff. And so we are really giving great assistance to that place. We're putting in our private testing arrangements for that particular facility so we can make sure that there is no spread there. And there are other arrangements that have been made around PPE and the like, in relation to that. The Commonwealth staff have joined the New South Wales State Health Emergency Operations Centre and are assisting particularly around aged care matters. So, look, this is concerning, of course, in the lead up to Christmas.

We were hoping that we had been going so well and we are still going so well elsewhere in the country. No reported locally acquired cases today, but it's a concern. We have New South Wales Health, with assistance of others right on the ground there and doing everything they need to do. And I have full faith in them. They are the experts on testing, tracing and isolation efforts in Australia. And we'll be watching closely in the coming days to see what happens and what the effect of these new restrictions might be overnight in terms of decreasing the cases. So I'm happy to take question now.

QUESTION:   Professor, obviously Moderna has now been approved in the US. What does that mean for Australia, and is there any chance we can bring forward back some of these earlier than March?

PAUL KELLY:          So, yes, so that's good news for Moderna. It's one of the mRNA vaccines, very similar to the Pfizer vaccine that has already received that emergency utilisation authorisation- use authorisation in the US from the FDA and other countries. So that's very welcome news. It's- so it's a similar vaccine, it doesn't have the same restriction of the minus 70. So that gives it some advantages. We're in touch with Moderna and many other companies at the moment looking at what might be available for Australians. But we do have at the moment the AZ- the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Novavax vaccine, as well as the Pfizer vaccine locked in. In terms of timing, they do, of course, need to get through the regulatory approvals here in Australia. We have our own world class regulator, the TGA, which will be looking at all vaccines. They're in very constant, virtually daily, mostly at night actually, discussions with the FDA and other international partners. And so they'll be looking to see how that decision was made. In terms of bringing it forward, we've said all along that we're aiming for March, and that will be on the back of the TGA giving their full approval. We're not going to rush that. Its safety is our first priority. And, you know, despite this issue that's occurring in Sydney, the rest of the country is doing very well. We don't need an emergency use of vaccine right now. What we need is exactly what's happening in the northern suburbs- in the Northern Beaches in Sydney and those rings of containment.

QUESTION:   Professor Kelly, has this lockdown of the Northern Beaches, or the public health ordering if you will, has it come into effect too late? Should Gladys Berejiklian and Dr Kerry Chant have done that yesterday? Is it 24 hours too late?

PAUL KELLY:          So, so far, we've- they've found three places where pretty much everyone has been associated with, either the RSL or the Bowlo in in Avalon, and now Anytime Fitness in Avalon. They’re the three venues that there have been cases. Almost all of them are, in fact, the RSL on the Bowlo from the 10th and 11th of the month. And so what's happened has happened. And they've put in place all of the things they need to do using that rings of containment concept. So they went in first very hard and fast on testing, tracing isolation and information to the community. And the community has been so responsive. It's extraordinary. I must say. It's a real wonder to watch how people have really taken on board what we've been saying all these months and basically doing all of that stuff themselves. So they haven't needed the public health order up to now. As the Premier explained, and I spoke through in some detail about this with Kerry Chant earlier this morning and last night, this is to reinforce what's, in effect, already happening. People are not going to the Northern Beaches. The beaches are closed, the pubs and the restaurants and so forth are closed and definitely will be closed tonight. So there's no reason to be going there. And the Northern Beach community have stayed at home largely, except when they've been queuing up to get their test done. So that's great. That’s the community actually responding in the way we want them to respond. The orders are just to reinforce that. So I think the timing's right.

QUESTION:   Right. And, she’s also flagged tougher restrictions being reinstated for Greater Sydney, potentially tomorrow. Would you welcome that move, or is that premature?

PAUL KELLY:          So that's obviously a decision for the for the New South Wales premier and her advisers, particularly the health advisers, and we'll just have to wait and see. They'll be weighing all that up. And as I said, we're having daily HPC meetings to discuss and to assist. But ultimately, that's a decision for the New South Wales government.

QUESTION:   Professor, can you confirm whether the New South Wales authorities have identified that patient zero from the Northern Beaches cluster?

PAUL KELLY:          So just- can you repeat the question?

QUESTION:   Sure. So can you please just clarify whether New South Wales authorities have found patient zero from the Northern Beaches cluster?

PAUL KELLY:          So, we've been working on the hypothesis, or they have been with our assistance, that this cluster has come from a passenger that arrived into Australia on the 1 December from the US and the molecular genomic testing of the viruses suggests that that's where it probably started. So in a sense, that is patient zero, case zero. Then we had these large, quite large clusters now of people that attended those two venues in Avalon on the 11th and the 13th of the month. There's a gap there. We haven't identified the gap yet, how that virus got to the Avalon RSL. We have a clue, though, overnight about the slightly earlier case from the Anytime Fitness. So that person became ill on the 10th. So we're getting closer to closing that gap. But there's still a mystery there about how that actually happened. And as I've said, I have great faith in the disease detectives working for New South Wales Health. They are the real experts in Australia, and they will keep going until I find that that link.

QUESTION:   Professor, I appreciate the need to be really careful when rolling out vaccines across the country, but we’re obviously seeing people – very profile people in the US – being vaccinated at the moment. Is that vaccine safe? Are we not sure that what they’re taking in the US is safe? Why have we got such a long delay between them and us?

PAUL KELLY:          So, the information we have so far about the Pfizer vaccine, which is the one that's being rolled out over the last week or so in the US, is that it appears very safe. On the trial evidence of the tens of thousands of people that that have already received it. There'll be millions of people that receive that vaccine in the US, the UK and other places over the next month or so. That will give us much more information to work with. Ultimately, though, the way that this works, we've been receiving information from Pfizer into the TGA, our independent regulator, for the last few months. So they have a lot of the information already. They haven't got the final pieces of that information. And it's really important that they look at that within the Australian context, recognising what's happening in other countries, but making our own decision.

QUESTION:   Professor Kelly, the Premiers right across the country, they’re keeping a very close eye on what’s happening in the Northern Beaches. In your professional opinion, should they be concerned, should they be introducing a stricter border from Queensland to New South Wales for example? I know that Annastacia Palaszczuk is seriously monitoring this very closely. Can you just give us your professional opinion on the borders, as it is right now?

PAUL KELLY:          So the Commonwealth has always maintained that a hotspot definition is an appropriate way to look at these matters. And so, as I've said, we, for the first time actually introduced- declared the Northern Beaches of Sydney a hotspot yesterday in anticipation for these extra cases that have occurred overnight. So I very much welcome the states, the other states that are using that type of approach, so limiting it to where the problem is. I've also said here many times before that the border matters are really a matter for the states and territories to decide themselves. They arethe elected offici- the elected governments of the- those states. And they need to make the decisions about safety for their own states by themselves. And I just would I would hope that they will make that a proportionate thing as well as we have a lead up to Christmas. One more question.

QUESTION:   I might ask again, if that’s okay?

PAUL KELLY:          Okay, sure.

QUESTION:   I was, again, curious about the vaccines. I mean, there’s still people saying; we’re waiting, we’re watching other people we know get vaccinated. Don’t we deserve to have the vaccines at the same time as everyone else?

PAUL KELLY:          So, we’ve got our strategy. We’ve talked about it a lot. And people know that we're not going to have enough vaccine right from the beginning to vaccinate everybody. So we have our priority populations in general terms that's already been announced. There'll be more information about that in the early weeks in- during January, and we'll go from there. But, you know, absolutely. The first thing is we have to go through the regulatory process, make sure this is absolutely safe. We know it's effective. All of the vaccines that we have are effective. And when they're ready for distribution and we've got that sorted out, we will distribute them. But we've said all along, first quarter of next year is when we'll be going. And if we if it happens to be earlier, then of course, we will work with that. But for the time being, we're talking about March. Thank you very much.



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