ABC NEWS BREAKFAST HOST, THOMAS ORITI: Professor Paul Kelly is the Chief Medical Officer of Australia and joins us on the line now. Professor, good morning to you.
CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY: Good morning, Thomas.
ORITI: Thanks for joining us. I just want to ask you first because in the last hour we've actually had some breaking news that Chinese visitors to the US will require a negative COVID test in order to slow the spread of the virus, do you think that's sensible?
KELLY: Well certainly we were notified from our colleagues in the US about that direction in the last couple of days, so we've been following that closely as well as the other countries have been mentioning. But I would point out to you, and listeners, that I'm the I'm the Chief Medical Officer for Australia and it’s not my role to be commenting on other countries decisions, but certainly we are following that international development very closely.
ORITI: Indeed, but I mean we are likely to see Chinese arrivals here as well. The Chinese border, opening on the eighth of January, as you say a number of other countries have already put stricter measures in. I guess what I'm asking is would you recommend that Australia follow suit with that? We are expecting arrivals here as well.
KELLY: Well, as I said, all of those countries have made their own decisions based on their own circumstances and no doubt being advised by people like me in those countries, the experts in those countries.
I think we should really look at our own situation in Australia, you've mentioned our experience of living with COVID during 2022. There’s been a lot of cases but because of our high vaccination rates, particularly an elderly populations over 92% third dose, and 76% fourth dose in over 65s, plus our availability, wide availability and easy availability of anti-viral treatments, rapid antigen tests and PCR test availability and high hybrid immunity we're actually very well protected from the severe issues of COVID. We are in a fourth wave at the moment there's what's been described as a ‘soup’ of variants of the Omicron strain of the virus is circulating in Australia.
I think the biggest issue in China that we need to watch his is the emergence of other variants and at this stage, that hasn't happened. The information we have out of China, at least at the moment is the variant that's circulating mostly and driving the rising cases in China is a variant we've already seen in Australia. We saw it in July and that's mostly started to become less of a problem here. So, it's a dynamic situation, we certainly need to watch closely what's happening in China, and that’s what we're doing.
ORITI: I mean, are you concerned about the road ahead? I take your point about the you know the access to vaccines and the anti-viral medication. We had someone from Johns Hopkins in the US on about an hour ago who made the same point about the U.S. They’re well prepared, but they have made that move. More than one million Australians have Chinese heritage the borders opening, Chinese New Year coming up on the 22nd of January, are you concerned about the weeks and months ahead in terms of the spread of the virus?
KELLY: I'm certainly concerned about the spread of the virus in China. I think they have a very under immune population because of their ‘zero case’ policy they've pursued since the beginning of the pandemic.
This was always eventually going to happen when they did move to a similar response to the rest of the world, that they would be faced with a very largely non-immune population. They have relatively low rates of vaccination, particularly an elderly people and so there will be millions and millions of cases in China. I feel for the Chinese people right now and what they're facing and medical colleagues and so forth who will be needing to deal with that.
In terms of what that does for Australia we actually did some modelling early on, when we were looking to open the borders at the end of 2021, at what would be the effect of imported cases when there were already substantial waves within the community in Australia. It was not a major issue in terms of driving the pandemic. The difference would be a new variant potentially and that's something we would need to consider and are considering and continuing to watch what's happening in China from that regard.
ORITI: All Australian governments now, just back home and I appreciate your observations on China, but looking at our current situation now they've signed on to managing COVID-19 really consistent with other infectious diseases at this point. As you say though a lot of uncertainty about a different variant, the emergence of several Omicron sub-variants as well and we're seeing these higher numbers at the moment with no real way of deciphering precisely how high. Are you worried at the moment at the current levels of community transmission here?
KELLY: No, I'm not worried. Thomas. I think we've been closely watching. I’ve heard a lot of speculation about the fact that we don't know what's going on, that the surveillance has stopped, but that's not true. We've got lots of surveillance systems that are continuing to work and continue into assist us in monitoring the pandemic like we do with flu and various other infectious diseases. We don't have to actually count every single case to know what's going on, that's never been the case with most other infectious diseases. We do monitor of course the positive tests that are coming through both PCR and rapid antigen tests, where people do, large numbers still do notify state and territory health departments about their positive tests. We do have our hospitalisation data, we have data on death rates, we have a lot of data from aged care, we have furloughing rates of staff in a state-run hospitals.
So all of those things are extremely helpful, and all of those measures demonstrates to me that we are at a plateau in this current wave. It's certainly not rising as it was a month or two ago, but it's not dropping rapidly either. It will be interesting to see what the effect of Christmas is on illness within the next couple of weeks particularly in aged care, and particularly in hospitals and that's what we're watching closely.
ORITI: On that note, sorry to interrupt, but we are reporting this morning about Royal Hobart Hospital for example, staff being asked to return from annual leave as the Hospital experiences these COVID-related staffing pressures. Is there any sense of regret at the moment when it comes to abandoning some of the measures were in place to alleviate at pressure on the health system?
KELLY: I think that that was always going to be a case around Christmas, lot of people take leave at Christmas, if you add onto that need for staff, the absolute need for staff to not go to work when they're sick, plus any even small increase in cases coming to hospital and having a positive COVID test. I think that's an important point to make is that not everyone in hospital that is designated as a COVID case is there because of their COVID. Everyone gets a COVID test on the way into hospital to keep the hospital safe.
But all those pressures have come together around the Christmas, and hospitals all around the country are seeing that. We made a decision, the Australian Government and all of the s tate and territory governments, made a decision ay National Cabinet to open up Australia and to live with COVID and that was made more than a year ago now.
Those issues that we’ve faced through 2022 which have been very difficult, and we’ve lost Australians to the virus right throughout the year, have been difficult decisions. But there has to be a balance there about how we live with this virus and as you said, treating it like other infectious diseases.
ORITI: Professor you mentioned aged care a minute ago to sort of turn to that as well. At least 100 aged care residents died in the week before Christmas in Australia and the sector just says the facilities are unable to live with the virus. Third festive season where the virus has placed huge pressure on these facilities should we have, I guess, learned more from the previous two Christmases in terms of how to manage the virus in aged care homes?
KELLY: Thomas we've learned so much. Those terrible dark days of 2020 when we had, you know, 30% mortality rate from COVID in our aged care facilities even higher in some of them, that is not the case anymore. Our aged care facilities, homes and their staff have done an amazing job in timing up there their infection prevention control procedures, their use of personal protective equipment, their ability to recognise when people have had the disease and keeping them apart from others, doing rapid testing, very high vaccination extremely high vaccination rates up to fourth dose is thought for residents and also fourth doses for staff. All of those things have changed the situation enormously. We do have cases in aged care, it's true, and we are seeing seeing deaths in that age group because they're the age group that have the highest risk from this disease.
One really important thing that changed during 2022 is the availability of oral anti-viral treatments. We've got over 93% at the moment of people in aged care are receiving those treatments within a day or two becoming positive. That's an extraordinary effort and that is making a real difference in terms of protecting our most vulnerable.
ORITI: On that note the fourth booster shot and it's hard to keep up with the eligibility requirements, what are the current eligibility requirements for the fourth shot? Are all Australians eligible, I don't think they are, are they?
KELLY: Not all Thomas but certainly anyone over the age of 30 can get one.
ORITI: Is ATAGI reviewing those guidelines in the face of this summer uptick in cases, do you think that's a wise move?
KELLY: So, just to finish on the 4th doses, people over the age of 65 we definitely want them to be having it. The older you are definitely the higher the that the higher the recommendation of that makes sense. And we've got a pretty good uptake over 65 we’ve got 76%, so there's still room to move there - that's the fourth dose. And in terms of ATAGI they are continually looking at work - I'm not sure they are working this week in the Christmas period but they are looking at all of the evidence around the world.
We're going to learn a lot from the northern hemisphere winter where we’ve seen now they've gone to a different stance in terms of their vaccination and looking at time periods since previous vaccines, rather than a third a fourth, a fifth etc. And so that’s something will be really monitoring what they have done and seeing how that works. They've seen quite a lot of COVID in the northern hemisphere and Of course China enormous amounts, but other countries as well. Japan is having a very large outbreak at the moment, for example, but they've also seen a lot of flu and respiratory syncytial virus RSV So those 3 that we saw in our winter period as well, that's something else to have to start planning for our winter in the early new year.
ORITI: Professor, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you very much for joining us.
KELLY: You’re welcome, Thomas.