Chief Medical Officer’s press conference about COVID-19 on 4 January 2021

Read the transcript of Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly's press conference about COVID-19 on 4 January 2021.

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PAUL KELLY: Good afternoon everyone, Paul Kelly, Chief Medical Officer with a COVID-19 update from Canberra. So firstly, the numbers. We now have 28,504 total cases in Australia since the beginning of the pandemic. That means 21 newly confirmed cases in the last 24 hours. Very pleasingly, we know that there are outbreaks both in Sydney and in Melbourne, but very few cases were diagnosed up 'till the cut-off for today's numbers last night. So- in fact, zero cases for the 24 hours to 8 PM in New South Wales yesterday and only three cases in Victoria.

So, that is really just an incredibly important message that whilst we are concerned with these locally acquired cases, of course we are, the contact tracing exercise, the testing, and the isolation efforts that are being done in both Victoria and New South Wales are bearing fruit. Of course, there have been other elements of what we call our suppression strategy that have been put into play over the last 24 hours and before that in relation to both of those states, which are also contributing to the control of the coronavirus in those places.

Just to think about other elements of this, so we have now a number of active cases as well in hotel quarantine. Those numbers in people coming from overseas are starting to increase, slowly. There's still a small proportion of the people that are coming across our border, but that hotel quarantine component of our control strategy remains crucial and important and is- and that 14 days is absolutely required and is happening in the states which are taking arrivals from overseas right now.

In terms of hospitalisations, we only have 26 people in hospital right throughout Australia. That's hugely different from almost every other country in the world right now where we are seeing major problems and issues in relation to hospitalisations, particularly in the US but many other countries. We have zero people in intensive care and no one, of course, therefore on ventilation. So, that is, again, a major difference between us and the rest of the world.

There's been a lot of discussion, as there should be, around the vaccination policy and strategy here in Australia compared with other countries. I just want to reassure, as we've been saying for some time now, that we're going through the processes, as we've talked about for some time, in relation to getting vaccination to Australians, and that is on target, and we are going through all of the processes that need to be done to ensure safety as well as a strong and efficient implementation of that strategy. So the next steps as we're going through, we are- in fact I met with our newly formed Division for Vaccination, COVID Vaccination, here in the Department of Health in Canberra today. They have been working virtually non-stop, all the way through from before Christmas and through Christmas and New Year's period and now back on deck totally today and focused on what needs to be done in relation to that. Similarly, our independent regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, has continued to have very close and frequent contact with overseas regulators- some of whom have now given an emergency use authority for a couple of the vaccines, and another one overnight in India. So, we have the finger on the pulse there. We know firstly what's happening in the regulatory space, but also, as importantly, what's happening in terms of the implementation of those vaccine strategies in like-minded countries like the UK, like the US, and other parts of Europe.

So that's going ahead. The approvals will happen when all of the information that we need to make those approvals is available, and that will be fast-tracked as much as possible, but no shortcuts will be made. The safety tick has to be there before anyone gets this vaccine in Australia. Once that approval is done, there will be deliveries from our overseas suppliers and then from our local suppliers here in Australia, the AstraZeneca vaccine, if and when that gets the approval. And so, after those supplies are in Australia, there will be extra testing that's done in terms of the absolute final tick for safety, and that takes a short period. And then we'll be starting. So, we've said all along that by the end of March, we will have vaccines here in Australia. If it ends up being some of those things being a bit earlier, well, that's great, but we're not going to promise anything there. We need to get through all of those processes that need to happen.

Finally, I just want to make a reminded to those of you that are living in the Greater Sydney area including Wollongong and the Central Coast, masks are now mandated in indoor settings. So please take on that approach, as has happened in Victoria over many months, as part of, but not the only, but part of our protection against this virus spreading to protect yourself, to protect your family, and to protect the wider community. So masks is part of that message in those areas where there is community transmission. But all those other messages we've been using since the beginning, about washing your hands, coughing or sneezing safely, keeping your distance of 1.5 metres, minimising all of those things will help right now, particularly in those areas where there may be circulating virus. And of course, if you are sick, please do not go to work. Please do not go outside your house. Get tested. And that is the way we will firstly find where there is spread, if there is further spread in those areas, and again, protect you and your family and the wider community. Those testing rates do need to come up in Sydney and in Melbourne, and I know that both the New South Wales Health and Victorian DHHS are working to increase and improve those testing sites and availability.

From the Commonwealth perspective, we've also increased our hours of support through our GP respiratory clinics, there's 149 of those all around the country. For those states that require it, we have increased the ability for asymptomatic testing in those sites and so the Commonwealth is assisting. We had another AHPPC meeting today. We're meeting daily and all of the chief health officers and other experts on that committee are providing their insights and assistance to- particularly to New South Wales and to Victoria at this time.

Happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Professor Kelly, it's been a confusing weekend on borders. Is it concerning to you that the Commonwealth definition of a hotspot seems to be chucked out the window and were the borders discussed at AHPPC meeting today?

PAUL KELLY: So the borders were discussed. I did want to find out if there are going to be any changes there so that we can discuss those. But look, ultimately, the domestic border closures are a matter for the states and they've- they're doing what they feel is necessary to protect their own populations within their own states. And so that's that.

We do have a hotspot definition from the Commonwealth that was mostly designed and was agreed actually at AHPPC and at National Cabinet to guide Commonwealth support to state public health responses, for example, in relation to aged care and so forth. So that's there for that reason. I am very happy just to see how the NT, Tasmania and some of the other states are using their own sort of version of a hotspot definition in relation to their border decisions. But the other states, as I say, they have to make the decisions as they see fit to protect their own population.

QUESTION: Given how quickly situations can change, do you believe that we should be, you know, going on these summer holidays before the vaccine comes into wide circulation, given how quickly it can be all taken away us?

PAUL KELLY: So, yeah, so we always knew that from the beginning of this, that a respiratory virus does generally spread with people. And so where people are more mobile and gathering together, then that is the way that viruses spread. So we know that's the typical way that things happen during summer in Australia, Christmas gatherings and so forth, as is playing out in the Victorian outbreak related to that Blackrock restaurant. Most of the second secondary cases have been in Christmas gatherings, people coming together in their own homes. And so that's why we and also the Victorian and the New South Wales health authorities in particular have been making that- those pleas about gatherings in private homes as well as other venues, and indeed making adjustments to the public health orders in relation to that. So it's a risk, we do need to start learning at some point to live with this virus. But the vaccine's coming. And I think people are being very cautionary and precautionary today and into the coming months whilst we're waiting for that vaccine is definitely the way to go.

QUESTION: Are we likely to get a fresh wave of cases once people start returning to their homes after this holiday period?

PAUL KELLY: So we know where the hotspots are in Sydney and this one particular venue- in particular in Melbourne. And so as people move around, yes, that is an issue and that's why I'm sure the Victorian authorities have requested anyone coming from New South Wales should get a test, and the same for Victorians going into different- into other jurisdictions. And so, again, I call out to anyone who has been at those places of interest in either New South Wales or Victoria, and they are updated very regularly and with great detail and pinpointing times as well as place on the websites of those two authorities. And I would really request anyone who's been in New South Wales in the last couple of weeks to be checking that regularly and similarly, for those of you in Victoria. I'll just go to the phone; I think Paul from the AFP is on the phone.

QUESTION: Yes, I am. Can you hear me okay?

PAUL KELLY: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. If the TGA does approve a vaccine or the three vaccines in January, why is it that it can't roll them out until late March? How can you explain that to the public, that long, long tail?

PAUL KELLY: So I can absolutely assure the public there will be no delays once that approval is done. And that's the rate limiting step, in a sense, is that that approval has to be done. After the approval, there needs to be stock available to be distributed. And then some of that stock needs to have further testing for the TGA after that approval. So there is some times there. It will be explained. Later on in the week, we'll be making more announcements about that timing and that process. But- and we're just being cautious in terms of the late March timeline at this stage, hoping that it may be shorter than that. But at this stage, we're being upfront that that is our plan for the end of March to be our time when we start it. But just to absolutely assure you and the Australian public, there will be no delays other than those that are absolutely necessary for safety and to ensure that the implementation of the vaccine strategy is working to its most efficient way to get vaccines to all Australians that want one by the end of the year.

QUESTION: And just if I may, on another issue, the test cricket, obviously, that's going ahead with about 20,000 people. Are you comfortable with that? And what are you- what assurances have you been seeking from the New South Wales Government?

PAUL KELLY: So, ultimately, the decision about a major event like the Sydney cricket test sits with the government of the jurisdiction, so the New South Wales Government in this case, together with the organising group, in this case, Cricket Australia, and the venue, which is the SCG and the SCG Trust. So, I know and I've had several discussions with Dr Kerry Chant about these matters, the Chief Health Office in New South Wales, in recent days, about the cricket. I've been to the cricket many times at the SCG and so I shared my insights into how that sort of event works. So she's taken that on board. I understand that some of her staff went to- have gone through all of the COVID-safe plans and they are extensive in the SCG, about how they'll run this event. Ultimately, I think, there is a couple of things that need to be addressed and I'm confident they are addressing them. Firstly, what are those COVID-safe plans, not only within the venue but also on entry and exit from the venue and the public transport and the like of people coming to the venue, what happens. And the second point, of course, is what's happening in the epidemiology of this virus in the Sydney region.

So, I know that both of those things are taking place right now and that will be- a decision will be made I'm sure in coming days. So…

QUESTION: I think it's just literally, just been announced, I think they were going to cut it to 10,000.

PAUL KELLY: So it has been announced, yes. So I was aware that was coming up. I think the SCG was about to talk that through.

So, Josh from The New Daily.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you Professor. Just another one on vaccines. I think probably to follow up the previous question from Paul and sort of touching on your answer about stock supply being a factor. Can we physically get out hands on these initial doses, the ones in the March rollout before March? Because these are the ones that are getting sent from overseas, if I know correctly. Is there a delivery date set in stone for those physical doses or can it actually be earlier if, pending TGA approval and pending all these things that we need to do?

PAUL KELLY: So, as you know, there are three vaccines that we now have- vaccine companies that we now have advance purchase approval with. There's the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which has been rolled out in multiple countries under the emergency use authorisation scheme, there's the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine and then there is also Novavax, which is a protein vaccine which won't be available until later in the year when they've completed all their trials. But we have that pre-purchased. So to the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, first of all - this is the one that requires minus 70 freezer space to keep it stable before it's used for vaccination. So the idea for that would be to get it just before it's used, because the risks of it, the logistic issues would point towards that direction. That will be coming from overseas; we don't make that particular vaccine or that type of vaccine here in Australia. And so once approval comes through, we have had multiple discussions with that company to make sure that there is no delay in getting that vaccine to Australia so we can complete those last batch testing component of the safety checks and then it will be ready to roll out in terms of AstraZeneca, that is being made here in Melbourne. And we are working with CSL to make sure that those batches of Australian made AstraZeneca vaccine, again, there is no significant delay after approval for that one. But before that arrives, we have negotiated with the company to have overseas made vaccine of the same type delivered here. And again, it would be the same thing - once approval is here, then we will be getting those vaccines delivered to Australia.

QUESTION: But just- I guess just to press you on that, if we do get it approved, say in January, February, before that March timetable, can we ring up AstraZeneca, can we ring up Pfizer and say we're ready for it now, send it over? Or are those dates sort of locked in stone, immovable, not able to be changed?

PAUL KELLY: So we're in constant negoti- constant discussions, not negotiations, but discussions with those two companies. Ultimately, it's a decision for the company. But we have our contracts in place about delivery schedules and they're first quarter of this year and we'll be binding them to that.

Any more questions from the room?

QUESTION: I've got one.


QUESTION: Sorry, Professor, I've just been asked to ask this one. Is there any risk in allowing Victorians that have been to New South Wales to return home provided they isolate for 14 days?

PAUL KELLY: In Victoria? So it's Victorians going back to New South Wales?

QUESTION: Victorians coming- going home from New South Wales.

PAUL KELLY: Yep. So that's a matter for New South Wales to decide what should happen to people coming within their state. I'm not aware of any restriction for Victorians coming back at this point.

QUESTION: You mentioned earlier that the testing rates need to come up in Sydney and Melbourne. What's the ideal [indistinct] rates we should be seeing?

PAUL KELLY: I think as many as possible. So we reached a phenomenal high just before Christmas of 68,000 tests, almost all of those were in were in Sydney. A large proportion of those were in the Northern Beaches, where, at that time, that's where the cluster of cases was occurring. So in fact, in the northern part of the Northern Beaches, almost 43 per cent of the population had a test in one week. That's feasible and achievable, we've seen that, at least in that small sort of population area. Anyone who has been asked to get a test by the local authorities should attempt to do that as quickly as possible. Anyone who has symptoms right now, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, but this is the same right throughout Australia, or if you have come from either of those states in recent times, if you are sick, get a test. So I think as many people as possible, we will continue to work with the local authorities to increase the ability for people to get tested as quickly as possible. But I am very pleased with the way that the laboratory tests themselves, the laboratories have been keeping up with that demand. So people are getting their results within a day. And so that's very important, so we can guide, not only the public health response, but particularly what those individuals should be doing.

Okay, thanks very much, guys.


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