Acting Chief Medical Officer press conference about COVID-19 on 26 August 2020

Read the transcript of Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, about COVID-19.

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Good afternoon, everyone. It's Paul Kelly, the Acting Chief Medical Officer, to give our daily update about the COVID-19 situation here in Australia.          

So first of all, the figures for the day, another good day in terms of new cases insofar as many less than a few weeks ago. In Victoria, 149 new cases today. Six new cases in New South Wales, one of those overseas acquired in hotel quarantine. And the other five still being investigated now. And that is all in terms of the Australian situation in new cases. That takes us up to 25,205 cases now, 156 new confirmed cases today.             

Less good news in terms of death. There were 24 new deaths reported, all of those in Victoria, taking us to a total of 549. And again, my condolences to friends and family related to those people that have passed away.           

We have had a decrease in the hospitalised cases, 603 now; 45 of those in intensive care. In terms of tests, again, a very big day of testing around Australia. And thank you so much for anyone who has symptoms or has been asked to have a test, going forth and having the test quickly. It does really help us to understand what is happening with the pandemic here in Australia. And so, 71,703 tests across Australia yesterday, taking us to a total of 5.8 million tests, almost 5.9 million, in fact.             

So, a better day in terms of the figures. More news today in relation to vaccines. So firstly, we are continuing our work, talking to many companies about the vaccines that are potentially going to be available within the next months or year, or possibly longer. And that's important news from the University of Queensland today, where they reported on some of their trials that they have done in animal studies, and the early phase trials of their particular unique way of developing the vaccine. It's a protein-based vaccine using their molecular clamp technology. And so, very promising results, as has been seen in a number of candidate vaccines now, with over 116 of them in trials.             

The other news on vaccines is our commitment the Australian Government has been given- announced today by Minister Hunt and Minister Payne. We have now- we had previously given an expression of interest to be part of the international Covax initiative, whereby we are looking to make sure that wherever people need a vaccine when it is available, it will be made available to them. And so, Australia has now committed $80 million and joined 172 other countries in their commitment to this Covax initiative.            

 Wherever the vaccine is, if it is anywhere, it can be everywhere. And we have seen how quickly it can get across borders in some places where there has not been cases for some time; New Zealand, for example. And we've seen- that if we really want to get control of this virus in the world, we need to do it everywhere. And the vaccination program, if successful, would definitely be a game changer in relation to that control.             

Finally, I just wanted to talk a little bit about the Protecting Our Healthcare Workers Report that was produced by our Victorian colleagues yesterday and released by the Minister Mikakos yesterday. Very important information there in that report. I've today written to the main author of that report, Professor Wilson in Victoria, and asked him to share with us, as is one of the commitments of the report, the data that has gone into those conclusions that have been made. That could very much have national implications and it's important our primary- people that are looking at infection control, our infection control expert group, which advises the Australian Health Protection Committee that I char, and through us the National Cabinet, are able to look at that data and really get a sense of what has been happening in our healthcare workforce. It's unacceptable that so many people have been infected. We need to really understand that's why the case and what else can we be doing as a nation to protect our healthcare workers, our aged care workers, our disability workers who are on that frontline of caring for people with COVID, and therefore at higher risk.           

So, I'll leave it there and I'll go to questions now. So can I hear from Dana first from the Sydney Morning Herald?


Thanks, Professor. Just two things actually. On that healthcare worker report, you mentioned that you'd like to see the data. Just on the face of it, does that report raise any red flags for you in relation to airborne transmission, and potentially that being a factor in healthcare workers infections? And the other question is on mental health. The Medicare rebate for telehealth, for psychology are due to expire next month. Does the AHPCC think that it should be extended given the ongoing impacts of the pandemic? Thanks.


Thanks, Dana. So, two questions there. About the airborne infection, I think that's why I really want to see the data that has gone into this report. We know that healthcare workers are at higher risk. And why is that? One of the reasons is that they are caring for people with COVID, and sometimes in very close proximity, intimate touching and so forth, because of the care they are giving in aged care facilities or for patients that are sick in our hospitals in particular. And so that is a high-risk setting. From the beginning, we have been looking for the best expert advice in relation to how to protect our healthcare workers in those sort of settings in clinical care, and personal care and the aged care, for example.             

And so, that's important, and it's important that we understand whether that is the main risk factor, or is it indeed other things that happen at work, because the main finding, which was of interest and- an important finding of this particular work is that 70 to 80 per cent - according to the Victorian report at least - were in healthcare settings. So, was that at the bedside? Was it in some other part of the hospital? What else can we learn about those particular issues so that we can protect our healthcare workers? It's absolutely fundamental. People should be able to go to work and feel safe from harm, and that's a really important component. That's why we need the further data, we need to consider that and see what we need to do in terms of protecting that workforce.           

In terms of mental health and telehealth, that's obviously- decisions about what happens to that into the future is a decision for government, not the AHPPC, but certainly the AHPPC and the health professions more broadly have welcomed telehealth, as indeed people who have, as healthcare seekers, sought care through that mechanism. And so, that's a decision of government that will be made over coming days- coming weeks in relation to the future of telehealth. Mental health issues are very clearly an important component of this pandemic. We know specifically in Melbourne and other parts of Victoria, this is a really hard time for them in terms of mental health and well-being, and that's why the government has actually put in substantial funding into mental health supports especially in Victoria, but also more broadly. So, where telehealth will fit as part of those mechanisms will be decided by Government over the next period.           

I think, Claire, I think you were next?


Thanks professor. Two questions from me. Today the top diplomat from the Chinese Embassy said that it wasn't clear or certain that the virus had originated in Wuhan, that it was up to scientists to determine where coronavirus initially came from. Personally, how likely do you think it is or is the Australian opinion is that Wuhan was not ground zero? And secondly, what is the global impact if China isn't forthcoming as we eventually move to an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 in terms of our ability to understand the virus and fight future outbreaks that may occur?


So, the question of the origin of the virus has been one I haven't been asked for a while, but it certainly was early on something that was of great interest. I must say, I'm much more focused now on what's happening in Victoria, and what's happening around the world in relation to this virus. It continues to be a global pandemic of massive proportions. Thousands and thousands of people every day being affected, hundreds and hundreds of people around the world dying from this virus. So, right now, I'm more interested in what we can learn about controlling the virus and particularly developments of vaccines and effective treatments, rather than where it came from. But you're right, the Australian Government is very interested and as a scientist I'm very interested in the origins of this particular virus and what we can learn for the next time if it happens again, another what is most likely a zoonotic infection, having crossed from one species- another species to humans.           

Let's look at the facts. We know that the first cases that were reported were in Wuhan. Whether it came from Wuhan or not will be a matter for the internationally agreed WHO-led team that will be investigating this when that comes to happen. Australia has been very much at the forefront of asking for that particular independent look at the origin of the virus, and I'm sure we will learn a lot at that time.         

I think Josh, you had the final question?


Thank you professor. Lots of stories coming from Australians stuck overseas who can't get home because of the cap on international arrivals back into Australia and airlines prioritising business passengers on the limited flights. When can we expect that arrival cap to change or increase? For instance, could our hotel quarantine system sustain that increase in international arrivals? Or is it still too early from a health response and logistics perspective to look at that sort of thing just yet?


So, in terms of caps on international arrivals, there's certainly- the restrictions at our international border has been a very important component of our control of this pandemic here in Australia from the beginning. And that decrease in people leaving Australia, and therefore coming back, has been a crucial component of that control. In terms of the caps on international arrivals, we're still having around 4000 people coming in every week, half of those into Sydney, and so there are ways of coming back. They're certainly restricted in terms of the number of flights that are available and therefore the number of seats on those flights. But people can come back, it's not a completely closed border, they come back into the hotel quarantine system, which has been set up by states and territories, and they are the ones that have decided the caps. It was discussed at National Cabinet last week, it will be discussed at every National Cabinet from now on, about whether those caps should be changed. At the moment they will stay as they have been. One last question in the room.


Some politicians today were calling on paid pandemic sick leave, I guess, or potential sick leave for casuals and small business type things. Like, support from the government. I guess you'd support that Australia-wide? That sort of- I think Victoria has done that.


So, pandemic leave, that's again a decision for government, how that gets played out. I think as a general principle, the AHPPC has sort of ethical principles in relation to public health measures that are put in place. And so if people are restricted, they should be supported in some way. How that- to allow them to make that choice easier, it's not reasonable for us as a society to ask people to do things which means they don't get any- you know, they can't support themselves and feed themselves. So, how that plays out as a financial instrument or whatever, that's for others to decide. But in general terms, we need to make it as simple as possible for anyone who's been asked to stay at home because they are either infected or a close contact, for example, that should be made as easy as possible. In terms of how that's done, that's a matter for others to decide.


I just saw something come up on Facebook. Just- can you confirm, can pets be carriers, or can animals be carriers?


So- yeah, this has come up before about pets, and my understanding is they can't, except there are several ways that you can transmit this virus. One of those is what's called fomites, so someone can sneeze or cough on a surface. You can touch that surface, touch your face, that is one way of receiving the virus. So, someone could cough on your dog, you could have virus on the dog's hair, pat the dog, et cetera. So, that's that. In terms of the disease actually transmitting into other animals, at the moment, it transmits very, very easily between one human and another, and that's the way that the virus has decided to go, and that's usually the way that it is transmitted.

Okay, thanks very much.


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