Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly's press conference on 13 February 2021

Read the transcript of Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly's press conference on 13 February 2021 about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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PAUL KELLY: So, we have one new case in the community in Victoria today. And that’s definitely part of the cluster that we’re seeing around the Holiday Inn. So the good news from Victoria, is that all the cases are either related to workers at the Holiday Inn near Tullamarine Airport, or they are household contacts of those cases, those workers at the Holiday Inn. So it’s contained in that sense. There is concern in Victoria about spread into the community, partly because of the numbers. We’re now up to 14 people in that cluster, but also that issue of the variant of concern. The so-called B117 strain which originated in the UK. We know that that’s a more transmissible strain, so it can pass more easily from person to person and when people become infected with that strain they can tend to be more infectious themselves. So a huge effort going on in Victoria. And a real shout out to my colleagues Brett Sutton and his team and all of the public health workers, all of the contact tracers in Victoria who are doing their work to really get on top of those chains of transmission. Someone sent me a graffiti from Melbourne this morning which, and I’ll quote it; ‘I get locked down, but I get up again’. And that is what is actually going to happen in Melbourne and in Victoria more broadly. After what’s hopefully a short period, that five-day period that was announced yesterday. We will all get through this, and the whole nation is assisting in terms of what is happening in Victoria.

Just to go through the other issue that was raised yesterday at the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. The committee I chair of all the Chief Health Officers around the country, and other invited experts. We’re advised that one of those close household contacts who has now proved to be positive themselves, was working at the Brunetti Cafe in Terminal 4 in Tullamarine. That is a busy terminal even in these days of decreased travel around the country. And so, literally thousands of people would have gone through that place, may have got coffee at Brunetti’s, may have been staying in that quite small terminal. May have visited that terminal from other terminals. We understand that people do that because of what is available at that particular cafe. And so all states and territories now are undertaking quite significant contact tracing exercises. In the same way as it’s happening in Victoria. Finding people, sending out messages, asking them to get tested. Asking them to isolate. And in some cases go into quarantine. So that is what is happening right around the country. From the Commonwealth perspective, we’re assisting in multiple ways. Firstly, I declared Greater Melbourne a hotspot from the Commonwealth point of view for an initial period of three days we will be looking at that on Monday again to see what is happened over the weekend with the substantial work that is going on. That allows mostly an ability for Victoria to ask for Commonwealth assistance. So that’s in relation to aged care support, including one worker in one site issues, as well as asymptomatic testings, or testing within aged care facilities. And I will stress that there is no link at the moment with aged care facilities in Melbourne. But of course, we need to keep a close eye on that going forward. We’re assisting, if necessary, with contact tracing. We have a team here ready to go, and we’re checking on the need for that with our Victorian colleagues every day; at least once a day.

Our GP respiratory clinics, we’ll have those right throughout the country. And so, in Victoria, in particular but also in other states and territories, we are looking at increasing the testing capability to assist with that contact tracing exercise. Finally, we’re assisting with that airport link, with the manifests. Gathering the manifests from the various airlines that fly through Tullamarine to assist those contact tracing efforts in other states. So we’re all in this together, and we’re looking very closely and carefully throughout the country for any possible links in relation to this transmission event in Melbourne. And so far, very good news – there are no positive cases anywhere in the community outside of the Melbourne area.

The other update I’ll give on hotel quarantine. Of course, a lot of questions about that in relation to this particular incident, which was in a quarantine hotel. These are complex systems. I have full confidence in the Victorian set up for quarantine. They run a very good quarantine system. As indeed, do all of the other states and territories are doing in their ways. As I’ve talked through here before, we’ve had various reviews of the hotel quarantine system, which has stood us in a very stead since March last year, when it became compulsory for any arrivals from overseas to go into hotel quarantine at the end of March 2020. Since that time, we’ve had well over 200,000 people come through that system, we’ve had well over 3000 positive cases of coronavirus, including some of these variants of concern in recent weeks. Which we are tracking. We’ve had these very small number of breaches. But of course, we can always learn from what happens, and that continuous quality improvement approach is what we’re taking. The AHPPC met three times this week to discuss hotel quarantine specifically. And we will continue to meet until we have really gone through and seen what else we could be doing to improve the quality of our system. And we won’t stop there. Every week from now on, the AHPPC will be asking very specifically at one of their meetings, ‘what have we learnt from quarantine this week, how can we improve?’ So, there’ll be more said about that at a later time. But the Commonwealth - we oversee those standards, we give guidance, we have meetings like the ones I’m describing. But the states are the ones that are running their quarantine systems, and they need to do that in the way that best fulfils their needs within their own states.

Just finally, on the vaccines. The Prime Minister and the Health Minister, Minister Hunt, were down in Melbourne yesterday morning, and visited the CSL plant. They looked at what was happening in the fill and finish of our home grown AstraZeneca product. Very good vaccine, which will be available soon in Australia, made by Australians. And ready to go for vaccination in Australians as long as the TGA gives its tick of approval, which we’re expecting very shortly. At that press conference after that visit, they also absolutely confirmed that the Pfizer product, which is coming from overseas, will be here and we’re on track to have that product ready to go to start, as we’ve said, by the end of February. In terms of vaccinations within Australia, there’ll be more announcements about that later this week. And just to reiterate, that will be prioritising those priority groups that were outlines by the medical expert panel. Starting with, absolutely, our quarantine workers. And so thanks again to the states and territories who continue to work with us on that. And all of the plans that are happening right across Australia in terms of the implementation of that massive logistics exercise of getting vaccines out to people along those priority groups first, and then to the wider public later by the end of October so that everyone will be able to get that vaccine if they wish to get it.

So I’ll open for questions?

QUESTION:  Professor, James Massola from the Sun Herald and the Sunday Age, you say that one case in Victoria today is good news, and of course it is. However, Daniel Andrews himself said they expect the preponderance of positive cases to appear either on Sunday or Monday, as testing ramps up. How concerned are you that there’ll be significant up-ticking of cases in Victoria? Given the particular infectiousness of this strain?

PAUL KELLY: Yeah, so the strain is more infectious. And so we have 14 cases now, each of those could be infectious. The good news about that is most were put into quarantine very quickly, and so their ability to infect others is mainly, as we’ve seen, being played out within households, not in the wider community. However, as is the case in the person that worked at Brunetti’s, another cleaner at the Airport, a contractor that went to a couple of worksites. A few other episodes like that. That possibility is there that they may have infected others, and of course they can infect others. So that’s the key point. Crucially, I would say, that the people that are mostly likely to be infected are the very close contacts. So household, we’ve seen. Workplace contacts, I can say that 11 out of 12 close contacts at Brunetti’s Cafe have tested negative already. That’s the first test, they’ll be followed up later of course. But that’s very good news, because we’re already at day four for those people that might have been associated with that. And we do know that this virus, the variants of the virus, is the same of the other virus. There is a range of incubation periods, some can be quite short. But the average is around the four to six day period. So, negative on day four, very good. We’ll be following them up. So that’s what will lead us to see where we’re going, and whether we’re getting on top of this.

QUESTION: Just in terms of Brunetti’s, approximately 5000 people went through Terminal 4 in that, sort of, infectious period of time. Has the AHPPC discussed how concerning that is? Given how many people fly from that terminal all around Australia? Are there discussions already underway about potential lockdowns in other states?

PAUL KELLY: So, there’s no discussion of lockdowns in other states at this stage. There’s been no single positive case found through that event. But yes, we are concerned about that, and that’s why yesterday morning we had a specific meeting related to that matter, and all of the states and territories are doing what they need to do in terms of contact tracing. SMS messages are going out to people that have crossed borders. At the Commonwealth level, we’ve given manifests of those flights so they can double check that they’re finding everyone. And of course, press conferences like this are happening all around the country just reminding people if you were in Terminal 4 particularly of Tullamarine on February 9, between the hours of 4.45 in the morning and 2pm in the afternoon, you are at risk and you should get tested. Isolate and get tested, and then seek advice from whatever state and territory you’re in.

QUESTION: Just to pick you up on what point you just made then, though, about contact tracing across the states, and how it’s working well. 8.9 per cent of people who are considered to be close contacts of the- in current situation in Victoria were not contacted by contact tracers in Victoria within the 48-hour benchmark period. This has been told to The Age in The Age today, according to three separate sources. How can you have confidence in Victoria’s tracing when those targets aren’t being met?

PAUL KELLY: So I'm aware of The Age report. I can guarantee that that information did not come from the AHPPC. That's up to that particular journalist to decide where that information may have come from. But I would state this. That some months ago - many months ago - the National Cabinet agreed that all states and territories would make available to the nation, coordinated at the national level, information about their contact tracing in some granular detail. Now that goes into a common operating picture, which is essentially a one-page dashboard. It's a publicly available document. Once a week it's published. We gather that information and look at it every day. They are flags to see what is happening and to make sure that the support, if any, is needed is being given. So there was some data shared with us earlier this week. We followed that up with the Victorian authorities. They assured us that that was a data issue, not an issue of contact tracing. So it fulfilled what it needs to do. The common operating picture was, is there a problem? Let's check. There wasn't - end of story. So this can no way be seen as any sense that we’re not working together. We are working together, the Victorian authorities have our full support. And I have full confidence in what they're doing.

QUESTION: So you have full confidence in Victoria’s contact tracing system Professor, even though additionally, a nebuliser was brought in by a man. Who said he had twice received permission to do so, into a hotel quarantine facility. Even though that's in breach of the rules. How is that not another failure of Victoria’s contact tracing and also, sorry, more specifically, it’s quarantine system?

PAUL KELLY: Yeah. So that would relate to the quarantine, of course. So, nebulisers – high risk. We don’t use them in hospitals. How that worked out to that that was being used in the hotel room, I’ll leave to the Victorians authorities to talk to. I’ll go to the phone now, Emma from Channel 9 is on there?

QUESTION: Thank you Professor Kelly. You did mention this week that the AHPPC would be meeting more regularly about hotel quarantine. From your perspective as a medical adviser for COVID, do you think there's a valid argument for our quarantine programme to be a national scheme rather than a responsibility to individual states? And why or why not? And should we be cutting back on international arrivals, as Premier Andrews has suggested?

PAUL KELLY: So there’s several parts of that question and remind me if I don't get to all of them, but firstly, the AHPPC is meeting daily, again, which we've done for most of the last year. But that's specifically looking at the issues in Victoria and indeed because of that, the Tullamarine link potentially to the rest of Australia. So we're meeting daily. Part of that, of course, is about the quarantine system in relation to this particular outbreak. In terms of quarantine itself. We talk about it a lot at AHPPC in terms of the standards and the AHPPC gives advice. And we as a Commonwealth, I'm the representative of the Commonwealth on that AHPPC group. And so we'll continue to do that. As I said, we're looking at continuous quality improvement and what we can do to make a very good system even better. I will point out that the UK this week is starting to use our template for their own purposes in relation to hotel quarantine of arrivals from certain countries. So we'll continue to do that. The Commonwealth is involved. The Commonwealth is absolutely involved in Howard Springs - that's fully funded from Commonwealth funds. And the AUSMAT group up in Darwin is involved with that quarantine. So we are picking up a load, if you like, there. What was the rest of your question? Sorry, Emma, there was a couple of other pieces there.

QUESTION: That's OK. But just to clarify, from a Commonwealth point of view, do you think, perhaps, given that we have seen leaks over time with cases getting out of the quarantine system, that it would be better managed at a national level?

PAUL KELLY: So we've talked through this from the very beginning about where these things should happen. The states and territories themselves actually, at a National Cabinet meeting very early on, said that it should be the states and territories. That's where the public health system is run. That's the people that have the various staff that are needed for this type of exercise. We've assisted from the Commonwealth in terms of some of those staff. So ADF personnel, for example, have been involved. But it's really been run in the states and territories and we are contributing. And that's really the way it's been. In terms of your other part of your question around whether we should be taking less people home, I would say that we do have vulnerable Australians overseas. The Australian Government does have a responsibility to Australians overseas. And for those that are vulnerable and really desperate to come home, we need to factor that in and to make it as safe as possible in terms of the virus transmission to the wider community. That’s certainly something we're absolutely focussed on. But we'll continue to look at that in the coming weeks. So we’ll go to Kathleen from the ABC?

QUESTION: Thanks, Professor Kelly. Could you just explain the reasoning behind declaring Melbourne as a hot spot, considering it hasn't reached that 30 cases over three days threshold yet. And is that at all informed by the large numbers of infections and deaths that we're seen in aged care in Melbourne during the last wave there?

PAUL KELLY: So the second part first, no, it's not related to what happened last year. And I'm very confident that that won't be where we'll be ending up with this outbreak. But what I would say about the hotspot definition, we have updated the hotspot definition at the time of the Queensland case, that very first case that we had in Australia, in the community related to quarantine of one of the variants of concern. And so there's a third trigger there now for starting the conversation and examining whether a hotspot should be declared. And that is a single case of a variant of concern in in a community outbreak. So we have reached that threshold. But just to be very clear that those numbers are just the start of a conversation and we need to put into context what else is happening. And so the other components of that came into my mind were the numbers. And the event that it started that, which essentially is a super spreading event. Which we've seen now 14 cases from the Holiday Inn. So that's how we came to that decision. And again, just to reiterate, the reason why we have a hotspot is really to free up those Commonwealth resources if they are required in the manner that I already outlined.  Stella from Channel 10?

QUESTION: Thank you, Professor. Just back on the issue of the nebuliser, what's the contingency for a return traveller who say, had acute or chronic asthma and really needs a nebuliser? Should they- are they being taken off them? And should they be taken elsewhere to a more secure location for quarantine to be able to get the medication that they need?

PAUL KELLY: Well, certainly if someone needs medication or any support of a medical health nature, then that's not going to be denied them because they're in quarantine. There'll be arrangements made for that to be used safely. So there are processes already of looking prior to travel and then also particularly for those flights that are being funded and facilitated by the Commonwealth about any medical needs. And also on arrival for commercial flights, there is a screening process at the airport. And then during hotel quarantine, that was a very key component of the Halton review last year, was to make sure that those supports, whether that be mental health or physical health, are catered for. And we're not just looking at COVID here. We're looking at a whole person with sometimes quite complex needs. And we're finding that many of those vulnerable Australians that need to come back are because of their complex needs in terms of medical needs and others. We've seen people with terminal cancer. We've seen people at very late stages of pregnancy. We've seen this particular person who unfortunately is in intensive care and I really give my sympathy to that family and to that person, with a particular need in relation to respiratory illness. So, no, they won't be denied that help. Whether they need to be cared for in a different way would be something for the local authorities to absolutely know as they come into the quarantine facility to make sure that that's being catered for in a safe way, but also for the best benefit of that particular person. I’ll just take one more in the room and then we'll stop there.

QUESTION: A question of vaccines, something- follow-up on something I asked Professor Murphy a couple of weeks ago. Where is Australia up to in terms of being able to acquire the capacity to manufacture mRNA vaccines? I know that there’s- he said at the time there’s work underway, is there an update?

PAUL KELLY: Still work underway. And specific conversations I had this week, actually, I can't go into the details, but certainly that would be a very exciting development for Australia to have that brand new technology. In many ways, I can see this being the future of vaccines. So we have very, very good home-grown vaccines in the traditional way, using, for example, our egg based vaccines for influenza every year. We’re getting close to influenza season. So there will be announcements about that. CSL is looking to introduce cell-based vaccines, which there already has in their plant over in the US. And now we see the AstraZeneca vaccine. So they're really exciting developments, mRNA, brand new technology. You know, it's not simple technology and it needs to be done in the best way with the best quality safety and making sure whatever is made in that way, it's effective. But exciting times. We’ll certainly continue to look at that over the coming months. But in the meantime, we're relying on the mRNA vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, to arrive in country, that's imminent. We are definitely on track to be having those vaccines in Australian’s arms before the end of the month. And so we'll do that. And then we've got our home-grown vaccines, which, you know, there are very few countries in the world who can say that. That we’ll have absolutely enough in country to vaccinate our entire population twice and more. So that’s the future. The vaccine will help with all of the things we've discussed today, including the quarantine process as well, because those quarantine workers are absolutely at the front of the queue for the vaccine. And I think that brings us to an end. Thank you very much.


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