Date published: 
19 January 2022
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

Australia has recorded its deadliest day of the COVID pandemic, with 77 deaths announced yesterday as the Federal Government says tens of thousands of new hospital staff will be made available to battle the Omicron outbreak. The support is set to come from private hospitals, which signed at this- which signed an agreement at the start of the pandemic. But private hospitals say yesterday's announcement will have no real im- practical impact, and that the Federal Government failed to consult with the sector before it made yesterday's announcement. Earlier this morning, I spoke to the CEO of the Australian Private Hospitals Association, Michael Roth.

[Excerpt]

MICHAEL ROTH:                  

Well, I haven't reached out to the Chief Medical Officer, and still waiting for a response from the Government about what the practical implications of this announcement are.

[End of excerpt]

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

That’s the CEO of the Australian Private Hospitals Association, Michael Roth, on yesterday's announcement around the private hospitals deal. The- Australia's Chief Medical Officer is Professor Paul Kelly and he joins us this morning. Good morning, Professor.

PAUL KELLY:                        

Good morning, Cathy.

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

I'll get to that issue of the hospitals in a moment. Just on yesterday's death toll, there was, of course, optimism expressed all of this week about case numbers hopefully peaking soon. But this death toll is now rising fast. You- and you tipped earlier in the week that we should expect higher hospitalisations and higher death rates going forward. Just how high would you expect the death numbers will go?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Well, Cathy, firstly, my condolences to all of the families that lost loved ones yesterday and throughout this pandemic. It's always a difficult time for them and so my heart goes out to them. It is a reality though. We know from the beginning of the pandemic, from experience here in Australia and internationally, that there is a death toll from the COVID-19- all of the variants. And one of the things we know about Omicron is that it’s less deadly, but when you have a lot of cases, you will get that small number that are affected in that way. We do expect that the deaths, as well as intensive care and hospitalisations, will continue to rise over the next couple of weeks, even as we have peaked, or are about to peak in terms of caseloads, particularly in the eastern states of Australia. But we know from international experience that of all ways, including and particularly Omicron, is that it rises quickly, it plateaus, and then falls quickly. And I fully expect that that will be the experience here in Australia as well. So during the next couple of weeks we’ll continue to [indistinct] ...

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

[Talks over] And what’s the tail for the hospitalisations there? Now I've seen some suggestion it could be two to three weeks, is that accurate?

PAUL KELLY:                        

That's our experience from in previous waves, both internationally and here in Australia. Just- I had a look yesterday at some of the other countries in Europe and in southern Africa, it was actually a bit shorter than that in this Omicron wave. Whether that will actually translate to be the same here in Australia is somewhat speculative, but we are plotting that closely and planning for that. And I think the announcement from- I know that the announcement from Victoria yesterday of the Code Brown alert was part of that. It was that actually planning for what needs to be done to prepare the hospital system to cope during this time. That's the plans we've had in place for a long time, and we’re reinforced as we had the national reopening plan late last year, and we've been reinforced and continue to be reinforced over the last few days.

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

What can you tell us about who is dying in this outbreak with the Omicron wave? The public data is patchy; I spoke to Dr Norman Swann earlier in the week who talked about the fact that there is a paucity of information. Who are the typical victims of the Omicron outbreak?

PAUL KELLY:                        

So Norman's right. It- look, it has been a challenge the last few weeks to keep up with all of the cases and to really chart those carefully. So- but we are doing that and I'll be able to say more about that later this week in terms of the national picture. But the states and territories have been reporting in quite some detail about who has died and who is in intensive care. And those two- and who are ventilated intensive care, that very severe end, to take that element, is less than the large numbers of cases, for example. What do we know? Well, it's very similar to what we've seen throughout the pandemic, both here and internationally. Older people, people with chronic disease, and particularly people with- who are older with chronic disease and unvaccinated or have not received their booster doses are the ones that are at the highest risk. In Queensland, they have looked at that quite carefully and closely, and have found a very large increase in the risk of ICU or death for people that are unvaccinated. In New South Wales, many of the people who are reported as having passed away yesterday had been vaccinated, but very few had had a booster shot. So I think the messages then about what to do are very clear: if you are due for a booster shot, go out and get that as quickly as possible. There are plenty of doses available around Australia for that.

For those that are not vaccinated, and I would absolutely and definitely include children aged 5 to 11 here who have only just started to have that opportunity, get that appointment and get those shots. For people that are older, and when I say older, it’s older than me, of course, Cathy, so anyone over 70, but even younger people that have chronic disease and those diseases that give higher risk, need to have a plan in case you do- are exposed and do develop the disease. Know who you should be calling. There is information and help available 24/7 through the healthdirect line, phone number, as well as lots of information on the website. So I think make those plans now as to who you're going to call, and so that's an important and reasonable thing to do, because there are treatments available, and there will be more treatments available very soon in terms of oral medications here in Australia, which we do know protect people from that severe-end illness, particularly when they are at higher risk of developing that.

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

And as you say, boosters are a really important part of that. Yesterday, the Aged and Community Services Australia peak body predicted that half of the country's aged care homes will be hit with the virus in coming weeks. The booster shots are still being rolled out there, did we drop the ball here?

PAUL KELLY:                        

So that's- it is rolling out, has been rolling out and it’s an absolute priority for the vaccine program led by...

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

[Interrupts] But it’s rolling at a time where we’re now talking about cases peaking. So we've missed the boat, haven't we?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Well, they have rolled out to a large proportion of the aged care facilities. And the vaccine programme that's led by General Frewen is committed, and the Government is committed, to making sure that every aged care facility in the country is visited for boosters by the end of this month. So that's happening in- at the same time as boosters are at record numbers being given every day. And the 5-to-11 vaccination program is also rolling out in this time, you know, over Christmas and including Christmas. In fact, there were vaccines given in aged care facilities on Christmas Day. So there has been no rest, and people are continuing to do this.

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

Could I ask you about the peak? Because, you know, this is giving us all some hope that, you know, hopefully soon, the worst, at least with this particular variant, will be behind us. But we heard in AM just a short while ago from an epidemiologist who pointed out that a peak can un-peak and go back up again. Are we preparing for that?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Well, this virus does give surprises, and we have seen that in a couple of countries. But most countries have had a pretty rapid rise, like we've done, doubling cases every two to three days, it’s exactly what we had predicted in mid-December, and that is what has happened. And then a steep decline -  that has been the typical Omicron curve around the world. And what actually happens here? Of course, we'll only be able to know in hindsight. I expect we will continue to see cases of Omicron right throughout the next few months, but it will be at a much slower level than it is now. Just the sheer numbers of people that have got this virus and will largely be protected, at least partially, by having had this virus. But that is not a reason to not get vaccinated - as we know, that gives the best protection. And a booster gives you even extra protection against severe disease, and, at least for a period, against transmission to others.

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

Paul Kelly, could we go on to the issue of the private hospitals? We heard in the introduction, the CEO of the Australian Private Hospitals Association, Michael Roth, who spoke to us earlier, saying that the private sector wasn't consulted on yesterday's announcement - why not?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Well, look, that that's a matter for others. To be honest, I'm not involved directly with those discussions. But I do know from the Minister, I was with him yesterday, that, you know, his announcement was raising this already existing arrangement to a new level and making it absolutely clear that the private hospitals and their staff under the agreement that had been signed in 2020, are available and assisting right now in both the aged care issue as well as the public hospital system, and backing up those capabilities. So I'm, you know, happy to talk to Mr Ross, but others will, no doubt, do that today. And I know that the Minister is writing, or, if not already, the letters have gone to all jurisdictions -  his counterparts in all the jurisdictions just arriving at that …

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

[Interrupts] Well I think- I think the point that Michael Roth was making to us, though, is that the private hospitals are already supporting the public system, and that nothing is going to change here. So in terms of going forward, we've got a Code Brown in Victoria. What does that mean in terms of health delivery for Australians, particularly as we move towards bigger numbers in our hospital system?

PAUL KELLY:                        

So look, just to serve for your listeners, a Code Brown, that’s indeed code in hospital parlance, for an external threat to hospital services. That's all it means. Hospitals around the world have these codes, which is a shorthand, if you like, so that everyone knows exactly what needs to be happening. Rather than saying: we'll do this, we’ll do that, let's consult on this thing or the other thing. The hospital system…

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

[Interrupts] Well, you're only announcing a Code Brown because you're anticipating a cri- a further crisis, aren’t you?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Well, I'm not sure whether it's anticipating or it's actually there, but that’s a matter for Victoria. But what the- what a Code Brown does is to make it very clear for everyone in the hospital system what needs to happen. And so those matters that were announced by the acting Premier yesterday in Victoria, are exactly what would be on that plan for Code Brown in hospitals in Victoria. And very similarly, that would be the case in other parts of Australia if they went down that path. All the hospital systems are being affected -  other than WA the moment - are being affected by the Omicron wave. It's quite clear, it's been- it's no secret there. We do have plenty of capacity, where every week we look at the common operating picture, which is published online, and indeed, we look at those figures every day. There is not a public hospital system in the country that has reached their level of concern, which is their own level that they net for hospitalisations. ICU is under pressure, particularly in Victoria. But again, there is plenty of room there. The challenge though - and this was pointed out by the Victorian acting Premier yesterday - is the furloughing issue, and issue of sick staff. And that's not just the hospital system, but many essential services around Australia. And that's why those discussions have happened at National Cabinet every week in the last month, to work through those difficult issues of balance between decreasing transmission of the virus, and making sure that we have essential workers available to look after our essential needs, including [indistinct]…

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

[Interrupts] So, I just want to go back to that question, though. I'm still trying to really understand what was announced yesterday, because according to the Private Hospitals Association, nothing is going to change. Yet, there was a sort of an implicit indication in the Minister's announcement that something was going to change in terms of easing some of the pressure on the public hospital system. As we move into this more critical phase with higher cases in the hospitals, are we going to be able to cope with the extra numbers here?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Yes, we will be able to cope. And that's- it's exactly what the Australian people should be expecting of all governments and all health systems, to be able to make those plans, which we've done; to have those break-glass issues, like the private hospital guarantee, and implement them as soon as it is needed, and to raise it to a new level when that's required. And that's what happened yesterday.

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

Yesterday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison moved to reprimand backbencher George Christensen over his latest anti-vaccination outburst. The MP said that parents shouldn't vaccinate their children against COVID-19. What's your message to George Christensen and to other anti-vaccination MPs?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Look, I don't have a message for MPs. I have a message for the people of Australia and the parents of Australia. You should have the highest understanding and faith in our system to provide safe, effective and high quality vaccines for your children. That is what you've come to expect for all of the vaccine program over many years, and the COVID vaccines are in that same league. They've gone through all of the checks, all of the balances, they've been used in literally millions and millions of children of that same age group in the US, in Europe and many other parts of the world, with no ill effects. We know that they're very effective. We know that they are high-quality. And please, make sure you go ahead and get that vaccine booking as soon as you can.

CATHY VAN EXTEL:             

Professor Paul Kelly, thank you for your time today.

PAUL KELLY:                        

You’re welcome.

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