PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST ABC RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST: Employers are being urged to allow staff to work from home where possible to help contain the third wave of Omicron as cases continue to rise nationally. But the Chief Medical Officer and his state and territory counterparts have fallen short of recommending the reintroduction of mask mandates or other restrictions. This is despite a warning that COVID-19 is on track to overtake heart disease as the number one cause of death in Australia. Professor Paul Kelly is the Chief Medical Officer and he joins us this morning. Professor Paul Kelly, welcome to RN Breakfast.
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Good morning, Patricia.
KARVELAS: Why are you advising people to mask up and work from home instead of mandating it?
KELLY: The advice that I put out in my statement yesterday, very much reinforces the statement myself and my colleagues on the AHPPC did a week and a half ago. We said we are in for a new wave of this very infectious new variant of Omicron, and we need to do something differently, at least for a short period of time. I think the next month is going to be very difficult for our hospitals it is already difficult for our hospitals. We're starting from a very high base in terms of hospital activity at the moment and in fact, yesterday, reaching 5200 hospitalisations with COVID is very close to our peak throughout the entire pandemic in January of 5300 and it will be more, so we need to do things differently. We know that masks work to decrease transmission it protects yourself it protects others and protects particularly vulnerable people. We know that working from home is a very key component of stopping what we call macro spreading around the - around communities. And so that is another important measure where it's possible and that's you know, that's a matter for employers around the country to consider with their employees. At this time, it will help to slow the spread of the virus over these coming weeks. But also importantly, and I've had these discussions with employers, employer groups, and my staff did yesterday. This is a business continuity issue as well. And we know that for many people in many businesses, you can work from home and continue to be productive. It's not for everyone, of course, but for those places we can, wherever we can, to assist to slow the spread right now. Will assist us to protect vulnerable people but most importantly, this time, to protect our hospital system.
KARVELAS: You said the peak of those in hospital was 5300. We're just 100 people shy of that. So, you will exceed it. How bad could it get? What is your modelling telling you?
KELLY: The forecasting we have at the moment with our colleagues at the University of Melbourne and the Doherty Institute of the places we have been relying on since the beginning of the pandemic and they've given us predictions as they do every week. And I will stress these are predictions. They're not necessarily exactly what's going to happen and we've seen before that actions that people have taken in the public health sphere and individual actions as a community can affect those predictions enormously and make the future better. And that's certainly what we're hoping for. What I do know is those predictions are showing that the case load will continue to increase most likely for the next few weeks. And those predictions only go out a month and as I said to the First Ministers on Saturday at National Cabinet I said that's the case in all states and territories. So, now's the time that we can affect that future and we absolutely have to do that together as a community.
KARVELAS: So, in terms of the number, what number have they given you in terms of their prediction?
KELLY: The way that these predictions work, Patricia, is there's no precise number. We know that it's going to get higher in terms of hospitalisations, as we just discussed than we did in January. Case numbers will also increase somewhere towards what we're expecting for those predictions.
KARVELAS: So, when is it expected to peak and just how devastating could it be for our hospitals are they able to deal with the caseload that will be coming through their doors?
KELLY: This is why I put out that statement yesterday and the minister and I gave that press conference to say this is the time where we all need to be working together. A lot of things have changed over the last couple of weeks, Patricia, and that will affect what happens in the future. The AHPPC statement I mentioned with masks and working from home as well as the ATAGI advice on expanding that fourth dose and congratulations to those over half a million people that got their fourth dose last week, remarkable increase there. That PBAC which is the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, widening that availability of the of the oral antiviral treatments that will also help. I've sent a letter to all aged care facilities last week and Minister Wells has announced a whole range of activities in relation to winter planning in aged care. All of these things are going to assist. And I think the actions that we can make as a whole community, even if it's inconvenient at the moment, mask use, working from home, those things can also help slowing the spread to protect our hospitals is the key aim right now.
KARVELAS: So, in terms of mandates, which is of course the big question, why are you reluctant to introduce mandates and is it still in your back pocket as an option?
KELLY: So Patricia, I'm not the person that introduces mandates.
KARVELAS: Recommends, I should say, recommends then.
KELLY: Thank you. I'm not the decision maker in relation to that. I think the important thing here is that these are difficult times and difficult decisions need to be made. But I'm going to have to leave that to the decision makers.
KARVELAS: Okay, let me ask then, have you recommended mask mandates?
KELLY: I have recommended that we need to increase mask use. We do of course have mandates that are existing.
KARVELAS: I mean more broadly, have you recommended more broad use of mask mandates.
KELLY: I've recommended that we need to look- and my colleagues at the same AHPPC we need to look at ways of increasing mask use throughout the community. And we have left it there for others to consider the pros and cons of how to do that. That's really a matter for others.
KARVELAS: Why haven't you made that recommendation stronger?
KELLY: It's a pretty strong recommendation.
KARVELAS: Well you're saying it's up to them. You're not saying it should be mandated. It's different language in the past I'm not trying to be, I just want to understand why your recommendation hasn't been given. We're seeing this wave and you're saying it's going to peak in hospitals higher than ever in our country in the past, why there hasn't been a firm recommendation.
KELLY: So, the firm recommendation is increase mask use and I'll leave it there I think.
KARVELAS: So, are we never going to see in our country mandated masks again. In terms of recommendation from you?
KELLY: My recommendation is that we, on the basis of the science that we know, that masks do work to protect individuals and to decrease transmission to others that mask to be used in indoor settings where there are other people around and that's an important thing. I've started wearing a mask in the last week I've noticed an incredibly high increase in mask use here in Canberra and in my own workplace. And so that's an important message I think for all leaders to consider their own actions and to see what we can do to influence others.
KARVELAS: Is it your view that mandates just don't work anymore?
KELLY: Mandates are contentious as we know. And as I've said, I'm not going to talk to mandates my advice is that mask use should increase.
KARVELAS: Do you agree that on current projections COVID is on track to surpass heart disease to be Australia's number one killer by the end of the year, which would be the first time I think in 120 years that an infectious disease is the number one cause of death.
KELLY: So that report on the ABC Online yesterday, there was 50,000 people who died of cancer last year in Australia there was 16.5 thousand people have died of heart disease and 14.5 thousand that died of dementia. It's certainly not going to surpass cancer and of course depends on how you how you cut that pie in a sense to say you know which type of cancer etc of course there's many different types of cancer but cancer is the leading cause of death. Heart disease is second, dementia is third. We won't know until the end of the year how COVID plays out there, we know that there will be more deaths and it's in the statement from AHPPC as well as my statement yesterday that we have to unfortunately expect that and it's one of the reasons why we want to take these actions now to influence that.
KARVELAS: There's a lot of confusion in schools at the moment there's a view amongst some that masks are too problematic and not necessary because children largely don't get very sick. What is your advice to parents and teachers?
KELLY: So the advice, this is coming up as I see it as an issue in other schools themselves or school systems are making their own choices in relation to mask use. It's a contentious area and I really will leave that to the to the education experts. It's a very difficult situation in schools. My sister is a teacher I think I've mentioned that before on your program and that's my touch point for how tricky the last couple of years have been. The AHPPC is very strong and I agree with this as part of that group that in class teaching is really important for a whole range of things well outside this virus. We need to make that as safe as we can. I think he places it as an indoor setting was people congregating, mask use should be considered. But it is it is a tricky balance. And I think that we need to think holistically about these matters. You're right that for children, mostly, is an incredibly mild illness. But it is a way that it spreads into the wider community. And so, whatever we can do, to slow the spread right now as a community working together, governments, individuals, community groups, as well as employers, that this is the time to consider what else we can do, brush off those business continuity plans. Think about my mask use where that's possible. And working from home is another key component of that. But the key thing I would say to listeners today is if you are due for your third or fourth dose of vaccine, join those half a million people that took up that new messaging around fourth doses last week and let's get jabs in arms because that is going to protect you, it’s an important component, if you are in those highly vulnerable groups who are now eligible for the antiviral treatments go and have that discussion now have a treatment plan now, not when you're sick. But know what you're going to do if you do get that positive test. And if you do have symptoms, this is a really important part, even more important than mask use, and working from home if you have symptoms, get a test find out if it's COVID and, if it is, follow that public health advice.
KARVELAS: I heard yesterday somebody say look, we're still treating this disease as if it's a killer disease. Yes, it kills some people but we should be treating it like the flu. And this is a view that you hear in the community. What is your message to people who have that perspective on COVID?
KELLY: So firstly, it's not killing people as much as in the early days of the pandemic because of the vaccine, that is the crucial thing. We know that Omicron is, however, much more infectious than the original virus it is more like measles than it is like flu. So, it's very infectious. And the issue now is about the spread and what that does to our hospital system. Not everyone that is in hospital with COVID is there because of COVID but every person that has COVID in hospital complicates the care of themselves and others. Every person that ends up in hospital via an ambulance or in an emergency room is making it more difficult for others to access care. This is why it's all of our responsibility right now, Patricia, because we all need to have access to hospitals for whatever we need to access hospitals for. We need access to our emergency services in terms of ambulances, we need to have hospital care sometimes and we need to have that available for us. So that's why it is all of our responsibility to take this seriously to help to slow the spread, not so much that we ourselves might be at risk or that indeed, people might die in the large proportion. It's about it's about these wider, wider elements including, business continuity in other sectors, which is other conversations we're having this week.
KARVELAS: Professor Kelly, just briefly, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has provisionally approved Moderna's paediatric vaccine for children aged between 6 months and 5 years, but I know we have a very limited supply when would you expect that to be more available?
KELLY: As listeners would know, Patricia, there's a two-step procedure in terms of the vaccines and so we very much welcomed that TGA announcement from yesterday so that it can be used. It's now in front of ATAGI, the vaccine advisory group and they're meeting today as they're meeting every week to look at that advice. I understand that they will provide that advice to the minister within the next couple of weeks. So that'll be the second step. And then of course as Minister Butler mentioned yesterday, it's the issue of supply where there is a global shortage of this new product. But Australia is definitely getting supply. Once we have supply, assuming that ATAGI gives that second approval, then we will be working to roll that out.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us this morning.
KELLY: You're welcome, Patricia.
KARVELAS: That's the Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly and you're listening to ABC RN breakfast.