Date published: 
9 March 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

BRENDAN MURPHY:

… about 109,000 cases, 80 in Australia confirmed now with plus the three people who have unfortunately died. The main story remains the growth in cases now outside of mainland China, with a number of countries showing continued growth. And as expected, we're seeing continued importation of cases from a number of countries, particularly concerning recently is the further growth across Europe, not just in Italy, but in France, in Germany and other countries. So, we do have significant community transmission now in a number of countries.

In Australia, we still only have one instance of community transmission in northern Sydney. New South Wales Health is carefully managing that, focusing on tracing the contacts and managing that situation extremely well. The majority of cases in Australia continue to be in return travellers from a number of countries, from an increasing number of countries from around the world.

Our message remains. The most important thing for Australia to slow the progression of this disease is for return travellers, who become unwell, with flu-like symptoms, upper respiratory symptoms – cough, sore throat, fever and the like – to contact their doctor and get tested. That is the best way that we will contain the growth in this disease. Many of the cases that have been identified in recent days have been contacts of those return travellers, and so it's good that they've been identified, have been isolated and have been tested positive. We're continuing a lot of actions in Australia now. We've been contacting every GP in Australia. We are getting the action under way to get more masks in place, to set up special clinics and doing a lot of work. We did some big workshops with the aged care sector and the primary care sector last week. Australia remains extremely well prepared for further growth in this virus.

I'll leave it there. Thank you.

QUESTION: 

[Inaudible question]

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Approximately, I think, 60,000 of the 109,000 have now recovered. And that is a really important thing to note – that 80 per cent plus of people with this disease have very, very mild disease. That's probably one of the reasons why large outbreaks developed in countries like Iran and Italy and South Korea, because cases might have seeded from China in January, and they spread in the community without people really noticing it. People probably thought they just had colds or mild flu-like illness, and it wasn't until some people got severe disease and died that it was realised that this case had spread. So for the majority of people who contract this disease – and this is what we've seen in Australia – it is a very mild condition.

QUESTION: 

Would you like to see more travel bans [indistinct]?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, the expert advice from the committee that I chair, that meets every day, is that at this stage when you've got more than 100 countries with cases, and rapid growing, you can't put travel bans on every country that has a risk of importation. We put the last – the travel bans on Iran because we were very worried about the underreporting in that country, and that's been borne out by 16 cases imported from Iran. But you can't prevent your own citizens from coming back.

So, at the moment, the expert advice to Government has been that the travel bans we've got in place are proportionate, and that no more travel bans are recommended. We're focusing on the early identification of travellers from a number of countries. You cannot fully isolate the country.

QUESTION: 

[Talks over] How many recoveries in Australia?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

The exact number I haven't got, but all of the first 15 have recovered. Many of the people recently diagnosed are in home isolation because they're so well. We've really only had three very severe cases - the ones that have died. So the vast majority of cases in Australia have had mild illness.

QUESTION: 

Are there any concerns about growing numbers from the US?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

There have been some importations from the US. The growing case numbers in the US over the last few days are of concern. So there is a suggestion that there may be not as many cases are being tested as necessary, but we're just watching that.

QUESTION: 

Can you please outline the mechanics of the specialist clinics? Will they be operating outside of GPs?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, some of the special clinics will be run by the state and territory health departments, so, through the hospitals. But we in the Commonwealth will be setting up some with GPs, with primary health networks, and they will almost certainly have separate entrances, separate locations. Sometimes, they might be co-located with an existing clinic, but with a separate entrance. The idea is to keep potential cases away from the general community.

QUESTION: 

So they will be essentially in the suburbs and towns more so than at major metro hospitals?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

We're working to have a range of these things across the country. It's going to be more difficult in rural and regional areas because you might have to duplicate that with an existing practice, but we're planning at the moment.

QUESTION: 

[Inaudible question]

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, we have – every single traveller coming into Australia now is given information about COVID-19, and we have – and every airline has a requirement to declare any unwell passenger. At every airport in the country, we have health officials and enhanced border screening so anyone who's unwell is referred for health screening. So, a screening at the airport hasn't picked up many people so far. Most people end up becoming unwell when they come here but we certainly do have very enhanced screening at the moment.

QUESTION: 

[Inaudible question]

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yes. We've had particular attention paid to Italy, to Iran, to China and the Republic of Korea, yes.

QUESTION: 

[Inaudible question]

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, then you would argue, there's France and Germany, a whole range of countries that have even more case numbers than the US. So, I think the approach now is to have good border screening for every return traveller and to have good practices for return travellers to make sure they declare themselves and isolate.

QUESTION: 

Do we have any more information about those two ADF personnel who have coronavirus? For example, were they wandering around Parliament House during estimates?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I'm not aware that they were wandering around Parliament House. I think the ADF is carefully contacting all of the people that they've been in contact with, and they're being followed up, like anyone else would be, in a public health response.

QUESTION: 

Does that include any ministers or [indistinct]?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I don't believe they've had any contact with any ministers, no.

QUESTION: 

A Victorian GP came back from the US with a runny nose and treated patients not knowing he had coronavirus. Our government is saying that a runny nose should have been a red flag for him, and he should have got tested because of the runny nose. Is runny nose one of the symptoms? It's not on any of the websites.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Look, I'm not aware of the actual specifics of that case. We would say that anybody who has acute respiratory symptoms- so generally speaking, a combination of cough, perhaps runny nose, fever, sore throat. A slightly runny nose – it's a matter of argument about that. But if you have a clear evidence of a viral infection, that's the most important thing.

QUESTION: 

So would a – just a runny nose, like a sniffle, be a cause for concern?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

It depends on the extent of it. Clearly, you can tell between a slightly blocked and sniffed nose and someone who has a cold. You should - most people can tell that.

QUESTION: 

[Inaudible question]

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I don't believe so. The – obviously people have been talking about the Italian Ferrari team, but I think they've been very carefully screened on the way in. There is no evidence of community transmission in Victoria at the moment. So I'm not feeling at all concerned going to mass gatherings or walking down the streets in Victoria, so I don't think there's a risk at the Grand Prix.

QUESTION: 

Just back on Dr Higgins – the Health Minister's refused to apologise to [indistinct]. Do you think that she should apologise?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

As I said, I'm not aware of the circumstances of his symptoms or that case, and I don't want to get into the specifics of that.

QUESTION: 

What advice do you have for pregnant women? Should they be avoiding public gatherings?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, pregnant women, obviously, take particular care with their health. Any infection during pregnancy is a potential risk. However, unlike influenza which had a very significant negative impact on pregnancy, the advice we've got out of China, which is probably where most of the data comes from, suggests that there haven't been any major issues in pregnant women who've been infected. But of course, pregnant women should be careful.

QUESTION: 

What's the tipping point which Government should say: maybe we should start looking at shutting down public events, as gatherings?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, we're certainly not at a tipping point like that at the moment. I think if you had widespread or significant community transmission in one or more cities in the country where there was a risk to people going to public events, that's when you should start looking at that. But as I said, the only community transmission we have at the moment is in that small outbreak in north Sydney which is being very carefully managed by New South Wales Health.

QUESTION: 

Would that be at the point where contract – contact testing doesn't identify sources and so on?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

There comes a – there may come a point where the focus is on isolating people who are symptomatic and test positive, and keeping them away from the rest of the community, and where contact tracing becomes less important. We are not at that point either. At the moment, we're focusing very aggressively on tracing and isolating contacts, because all of the evidence suggests that the best way to temper, delay and reduce the size of any outbreak in Australia is to contain at this time.

QUESTION: 

When you talk about significant transmission within a city, how many cases is significant? Is it one, two, 10?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

When we start to see more local transmission than imported transmission, that's a fairly important distinction. We're certainly not seeing that at the moment.

QUESTION: 

So just confirming, you've been contacting every GP in the country?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I've written to every GP just in the last 24 hours with a very significant update, and giving them advice on what we're doing at the moment and what we're planning in the future with these new respiratory clinics and new initiatives. Yeah.

QUESTION: 

So there should be no cause for concern when it comes to pregnant women in, for example, public places, or – what does the research about that show?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

The – as I said, the only research we know is from China, and their data would suggest that pregnant women have not had significantly adverse outcomes from infection. But we would always say that pregnant women should be careful, and stay away from anyone with any infection, flu or anything else.

QUESTION: 

Are there protocols – uniform protocols, at least, for closure of schools? I know different schools are adopting different measures?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, the measures are proportionate to the circumstances at the time. And so the schools are taking those measures that the state and territory public health officials recommend. So New South Wales, there've been a couple of school closures. One was just for a day while they assessed the potential risk. They decided then that the school was safe to reopen and that certain people needed to be isolated. So the state and territory public health units are very experienced in this. They've done it for diseases other than coronavirus.

QUESTION: 

We've heard that a vaccine is still a year away. Is the assumption that we will still need it in a year?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, we don't know. Even if we go through an outbreak and it disappears, whether this virus might become what's called endemic, it might stick around in the community and come back year on year. In that case, a vaccine could be of value. So we don't – we just don't know, and it's worth pursuing the vaccine options definitely.

QUESTION: 

If you've just got a runny nose and a bit of a sniffle and you aren't showing any other major symptoms and you haven't had contact with anyone from South Korea or China, should you still be rushing to a GP?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Not unless you are a returned traveller. If you are a returned traveller and you have acute upper respiratory symptoms, symptoms that really suggest you might have an infection – so, a cough, a significant runny nose, a bit of a fever. If you're a returned traveller, you should get tested. Or if you've been in contact with someone who's a confirmed case. If you're just a normal member of the community, unless you're unwell enough unless you want to seek medical attention anyway, we're not saying you should be tested at this time.

QUESTION: 

When you say return traveller, do you mean return traveller from anywhere overseas, or…

BRENDAN MURPHY:

[Interrupts] I – It's probably easier to say anywhere, at the moment because we now have 106 countries in the world that have got cases, and if we were listing specific cases, we would be changing it day by day.

QUESTION: 

How many people have self-isolated nationally?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I haven't got the exact number to that, but it would be some hundreds. Yeah.

QUESTION: 

Should doctors be going to work if they're sick?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

We've always said that doctors with a significant illness, such as a fever or flu, should – in the interests of protecting their patients should probably not go to work and obviously…

QUESTION: 

[Indistinct].

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Again, if you are likely to be infectious, particularly in this case if you are a returned traveller or been in contact, we would suggest you don't go to work.

QUESTION: 

Just for the benefit of people at home, what exactly does self-isolation entail?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

It means staying at home, not going out except perhaps to seek medical attention without - but initially discussing it with your doctor, getting your family and friends to bring in food. It doesn't mean not having any contact with your family, but we would like you to keep away from your family, at least a metre-and-a-half away. If you have to go out for some purpose, generally it's good to wear a face mask, but it's generally – and particularly avoid public gatherings.

QUESTION: 

Right now it's the coronavirus. When does it just become a cold?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think the coronavirus has particular significance because it is a novel virus. We don't have a lot of background immunity and therefore it has the potential, as we've seen in these countries, to infect a lot of people at the one time. And we do know that potentially around one per cent of people – we don't know the exact number – can have a fatal outcome, particularly those who are elderly and frail. So that is a very significant burden on the health system and that's why we are worried and responding to it.

QUESTION: 

In Queensland, almost 3000 people have been issued notices to self-isolate.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yeah.

QUESTION: 

So are you saying that far fewer people have actually done that across the country?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

No, look, it would probably be thousands, I suspect, yeah. I don't know the exact number of how many have been asked to self-isolate. That was – it would actually be thousands, yeah.

QUESTION:

If you could sum up a message for people at home about what you're saying today, what would you say?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I would say that the important message again is that if you're a returned traveller and you got acute respiratory symptoms, please contact your doctor and get tested. I would say that for the great majority of people, this is a mild illness, but the important thing we have to do as a nation is to make sure that people who have the virus are isolated from the rest of the community so that we can prevent and delay transmission.

Thank you.

 

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