Date published: 
31 March 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

Paul Kelly:

Good afternoon, it's Paul Kelly here giving an update on the COVID-19 situation in Australia. So the first thing I want to advise is that similar to other- the states and territories right around Australia, as Chief Medical Officer, I'm today declaring Greater Brisbane area a COVID-19 hotspot for the purposes of Commonwealth support. So Queensland has announced today the occurrence of two clusters in the community throughout greater Brisbane. And to date, testing has identified seven people in the first cluster and eight in the second cluster, and they are both related to the B117 variant, the so-called UK strain, which we know is a variant of concern and is more transmissible in the community. So we also know that they are likely to be two quite separate incursions of this strain into the Brisbane community, and so at this stage they are not connected outbreaks. Numerous locations have been visited by cases during their infectious period including locations in Gladstone, Moreton Bay Regional City Council, Byron Bay, Toowoomba. And so to date though, all of the cases have arisen in Brisbane residents. So due to this increased risk posed by the B117 variant and the occurrence of cases who have been in the community while infectious over a number of days, and other factors indicating the risk of transmission and more severe disease, this declaration is proportionate to the change in circumstances. And the Commonwealth has offered therefore the Queensland Government support and assistance as is the case with a hot spot declaration. So we'll be watching very closely what happens in Brisbane over the coming days, and indeed in Northern New South Wales where we know that some of those cases were last weekend whilst infectious. And so we'll be looking at the Byron Bay area as well.

Just a couple of other messages before I go to questions. So firstly, the Easter holidays are coming. I know many people will be travelling, but please, this is an opportunity to see what is happening in south-east Queensland, and particularly the greater Brisbane area, for people to remember about COVID-safe behaviours. Those simple messages we have been giving everyone for a year. This virus has not gone away. It is circulating, we know, in the Brisbane area at least. So people should be taking those precautions of the COVID-safe behaviours that we have been saying all the way along: keep your physical distance, remember your cough etiquette, wash your hands often. All of these things remain important. For those that are in the Brisbane area or have previously or recently been in Brisbane, please take note of the now large number of exposure sites that have been discussed and made available for contact tracing efforts in Brisbane- the Greater Brisbane area. There are over 60 now. And also take note of what your local health authorities are saying in relation to that. All states and territories now have particular advice for people that have been in Brisbane in recent times.

Finally, just a quick note on the vaccine rollout, yesterday we had a record number of vaccines, 55,997 vaccines were put into arms around Australia in that 24-hour period, which makes the total of 597,523. So a real shout out to everyone that's been involved in the vaccine rollout, whether they're the people producing our own vaccines in Melbourne, those involved with the distribution of the vaccines, those in GP surgeries, GP respiratory clinics, aged care, Inreach, the Aboriginal community control sector clinics, and our state and territory partners for getting this vaccine out and being administered to people. This is the way we're going to be able to get of this pandemic, but we're in the early phases of that rollout. And going forward, we'll continue to see that assist in these matters.

So Claire, thank you for coming. We'll go to you first.

Question:

I have a couple of questions. Firstly, with regards to the state rolling out of Phase 1A. We know that most states have barely managed to get over half of their allocations so far into people's arms. What exactly are your state colleagues telling you what the hold-up is? Some states like Queensland are claiming that it's because the need to hold second doses. We know that is not the case. Why is it so slow up there?

Paul Kelly:

So look, I'd have to say that we have a fantastic partnership with the states and territories, and that's working very well and has done from the beginning, and I'm not going to call out any particular state or territory in this regard. We are working very closely together on this massive logistic exercise. I will make one point, though, and I'd recognise that this has been said differently in other press conferences today. But from the beginning, we've been very clear from the Commonwealth how much vaccine is coming in and how much is being distributed to the places where the vaccine can be given, including each state and territory. We have been very clear in relation to the Pfizer vaccine, because the second dose needs to be given is three weeks after the first, the Commonwealth, as part of our responsibility, will be keeping a second dose available for every single person that gets a first dose. There is no need for a state or territory to be keeping any vaccine aside for that purpose. That's the Commonwealth's responsibility.

In terms of the speed of the rollout in the states and territories, up until very recently, we've all been in the boat of having a limited supply. It's been shared around to the states and territories, now to GPs, GP respiratory clinics, and our Inreach into aged care and disability care. And we are getting those out the door as quickly as we can, getting it out to those places where the vaccine can be given. And so we are encouraging all of our partners, once that vaccine is there, to make bookings available to people so they can come, starting with those priority groups; 1A and 1B. That's the phase we are in at the moment.

Question:

Are you able to provide an update on where you understand vaccine wastage is at? There's been reports of couriers failing to maintain the cold supply chain required and therefore the vials have been spoiled. How widespread is this, and are you constantly looking to address those concerns?

Paul Kelly:

So cold chain logistics is a challenge for any vaccination program. It's not- there are some specific ones that have been related to the COVID vaccines, because of the ultra-cold element of the Pfizer vaccine in particular, but we do expect some wastage, particularly in a large country like Australia and the logistics related to deliveries. It's been a small number. I don't have a number on me, but it's something we're constantly looking out, and constantly learning if there are issues to make sure that they don't get repeated.

Question:

What is the significance of the Commonwealth hot spot declaration for Brisbane for people who might still be thinking that they've got two weeks of school holidays, it might be worth going there even if they have to isolate on the way back?

Paul Kelly:

So I think people need to make their own travel plans over the next couple of weeks. There's two elements to that. Of course, the current lockdown in Brisbane is only until Thursday at this point, so that is a point in relation to people going to Brisbane. But please, check your own home state if you are going there, because it may be wanting to go there, but coming back might also be difficult. So I can't predict what will happen in the next week or two.

Question:

[Interrupts] But based on the cases, are you concerned this is the start of something escalating?

Paul Kelly:

So it is escalating at the moment. What happens now, and particularly in relation to the lockdown, and even more importantly the very strong public health action of test, trace, and isolate that's happening in south-east Queensland at the moment. Hopefully, that will get on top of it. But at the moment, those numbers are increasing.

I'll go to the phone now. Just look at my list. I've got Cameron Gooley from ABC.

Question:

The Australian Government advice for PPE in hospitals recommends only a surgical mask should be worn for routine care to COVID positive patients. Given the two healthcare workers in Brisbane have now contracted the virus, and that the more infectious British strain is circulating, do you think that advice is sufficient? I mean shouldn't the recommendations be for masks that protect against aerosol spread?

Paul Kelly:

So I'm not sure that you're correct in saying that it's for someone directly involved with the care of COVID-19 patients would be wearing only a surgical mask. But certainly, the important thing is that the appropriate PPE is being worn for those who are using it: N95 or P2 masks, that it is properly fitted. And that other protections, not just about masks, but other personal protective equipment and other procedures are followed. So that's really important. It's really the responsibility of the healthcare facilities themselves to be following the guidance and to be protecting their staff. And in terms of what happened in relation to the now several healthcare workers that are involved in this outbreak, that's part of what is happening in Queensland in terms of their contact tracing exercise and their further disease detective work. And I'm sure more will come from that over the coming days.

Rachel Clun from The Sydney Morning Herald.

Question:

Thanks, Professor. A couple of questions if I can. Should states be using a unified response to these outbreaks? We've seen states and territories have had differing responses to Queensland clusters. So is it important for the country to have a unified response? And then further, as the vaccine rollout continues, when you expect states and territories to stop closing their borders in response to outbreaks?

Paul Kelly:

So firstly, as we have said all the way through this pandemic, the public health responses are a responsibility of the states and territories, they need to do what they see fit to protect the populations of their own states and territories. I would beg to differ about states and territories taking different responses. I actually very much welcome what has been pretty much the same response all the way through in relation to the events in Brisbane over the last few days. WA has gone a bit further than the others, and particularly in their geographic understanding of the hot spot being the whole of Queensland. But most of the rest of the states have been- have taken a similar approach to greater Brisbane being the geographic area of concern, otherwise known as a hot spot, they have put in place very similar responses to that. So I think that is working better than it has in the past, and the other part of your question, sorry just remind me?

Question:

It was as the vaccine rollout continues, do you expect states to stop closing their borders in response to these sorts of outbreaks?

Paul Kelly:

So we've had some very frank and productive discussions at the Australian Health Protection Committee over the last couple of weeks in relation to how the vaccine rollout will assist us and modify responses to these sorts of outbreaks. That will be part of the process that will go into the Phil Gaetjens Committee which is coming back to the National Cabinet in a couple of weeks with the response to opening up Australia over the coming months, and how the vaccine might affect that. So certainly, the more people that can be vaccinated, particularly those in very vulnerable groups, the more we will be happy that small outbreaks can be, firstly controlled, but also won't lead to large numbers of people ending up in hospital, or let's hope not any deaths. So that will assist with that process but it's not a 100 per cent thing. At the moment, we are at a situation where we are at as high a risk as we have been since the beginning of the pandemic. We know as we're mostly open and there are very few restrictions on our movement, on the things we can do as a society, that means that the outbreaks can spread quickly, and so that's why that very strong public health response is absolutely crucial at the moment. And the more vaccine that is out there, the more that people that are protected, that will decrease the outbreak spread over the coming months.

Madura McCormack from the Courier mail.

Question:

Thanks Professor. I have a couple of questions if I may. Just to pick up where Claire left off, in Queensland today, it was also mentioned that they were stockpiling vaccines because even the Commonwealth wasn't sure when the next shipment of Pfizer vaccines were due to arrive from overseas. Is this correct? And secondly just on Queensland again, the Premier has mandated that from tomorrow, only frontline workers that have received at least one dose of the vaccine can deal with positive COVID-19 patients. What is your view on this mandate and is it something that you would yourself consider recommending to other jurisdictions so they don't end up in the mess Brisbane is in now?

Paul Kelly:

Firstly, if you are in Brisbane, Madura, our hearts and minds are with you, this is a difficult time for you and hopefully won't last long. But in terms of what is happening with the healthcare workers, I think the requirement to have the vaccine is obviously a sensible one. The whole point of the 1A component of our vaccine rollout was to make sure our frontline healthcare workers were protected, and most people in that situation in most parts of the country have come forward and in vast numbers and been vaccinated. So I think that's a sensible ploy, particularly in Queensland right now where there are a large number of cases in hospital that have come from overseas. And so I think that is important.

In terms of the Pfizer vaccine delivery, we've seen, not so much of the Pfizer but certainly with AstraZeneca, there is always uncertainty about overseas supplies. And so we have been very conscious of that. So far Pfizer has been very good. Every week they have been coming through since the beginning of the deliveries last month with further deliveries every week and so that has continued. But I'll reiterate what I said to Claire's question earlier, for every person that has had a first dose of Pfizer, there is a second dose waiting in the contingency at the Commonwealth level. So there is no uncertainty about that.

So Natasha Robinson. Sorry? Yeah.

Question:

Sorry I was just going to ask if I could ask a follow up question but I can wait until the others.

Paul Kelly:

I've just got Natasha Robinson and then we'll have one more question. Natasha, from The Australian?

Question:

Yeah, hi, thank you very much. We heard from Queensland today, they are expecting to finish Phase 1A tomorrow. Do you have an update on where other states are in terms of 1A? And in terms of the point you were making about Pfizer, the Commonwealth keeping Pfizer for a second dose, Queensland and I think other states are in a similar situation, vaccinated 56,000 or so people, but they've receive 106,000 doses from the Commonwealth. Why is it they haven't administered more of the 106,000? Is it because they're stockpiling? Or what is the sort of delay with more of those doses being rolled out?

Paul Kelly:

Look, that's a matter for Queensland to answer, what's happened with their rollout. It's certainly fantastic news if they have completed 1A tomorrow. In terms of the other states, I know that they have progressed very rapidly and well. I know New South Wales has reached almost all of their quarantine and other border workers already, and are starting and close to completing their second doses. So they're doing well. All of the other states are rolling out large numbers of vaccines through their own clinics.

From the Commonwealth point of view, we are continuing to work through the aged care and disability care in reach, both to residents and staff, so that is our component of 1A. And then we're moving into 1B as well particularly with the GPs. And last week, over 1000 GP respiratory clinics and Aboriginal community controlled health organisations were delivering vaccines, and that number is continuing to increase this week, aiming to get to well over 4500 in the coming weeks. And so that is our ramp-up. We're really looking to really establish 1B as well as 1A and then move into the wider community soon.

I'll just take one more question. I think it was Cameron?

Question:

Yes, right. Look, just a two-parter sorry. In terms of the current vaccine rollout programs, when you think we can expect Phase 1A and 1B to be fully completed? And then just secondly, The Guardian has reported that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine under the age of people in 55 in Canada have been halted, or Canadian authorities have recommended they halted based on evidence from Europe on potentially serious side-effects targeting younger women. Has the Federal Government received any information on that, and if so, what is their reaction?

Paul Kelly:

So just on the 1A, 1B, so we are looking to complete the 1A component in the coming weeks, and then by the middle of the year 1B will be completed, recognising that people move into these categories all the time. So new people coming into an aged care facility would come into 1A and if they haven't had the vaccine they will need to have that. So these ongoing components, the same with new healthcare workers coming into work at a hospital for example, they would become eligible for 1B. People reaching their particular birthdays will reach different components, so that will go on, but the majority will be done by the middle of the year.

In terms of AstraZeneca, yes, we're aware of that decision overnight. Just recognising that was not the drug regulator in Canada, the equivalent of our TGA, but rather on their expert medical panel. And I would reiterate that they have not had any further blood clot cases in Canada, this is only on the basis of the information that we have had for some time from Europe. None of the large regulators around the world, the FDA, the EMA in Europe, the TGA here, have made any different decision. But of course we're aware of it, we're looking at it closely and right now in fact, the TGA and our expert group similar to that Canadian group, the ATAGI group, our expert immunisation advisors are meeting together with other experts in relation to this matter. But for the moment we're pushing ahead with that same AstraZeneca rollout, and that's our workhorse at the moment in general practice and our state and territory clinics.

So thank you all for coming and we'll see you next time.

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