Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Sonya Bennett's press conference about COVID-19 – 5 September 2021

Read the transcript of Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Sonya Bennett's press conference on 5 September 2021 about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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General public

SONYA BENNETT:               

Good afternoon, everybody. First of all, I'd just like to start by saying happy Father's Day to all the fathers around the country, and particularly to those in areas with restrictions. I hope you've managed to spend some time with your children today, even if that's only virtual.

So, my name's Sonya Bennett. I'm Deputy Chief Medical Officer here in the Commonwealth, and I'd like to give you just an update on both today's numbers, the vaccine rollout, and a few other matters. So, we have continued to see case numbers increase across the country this week. And as of today, we had 1687 cases nationally. All but four of those were locally acquired. And in New South Wales, we saw 1485 cases and three deaths. And yesterday, we know that New South Wales did have a record day for cases, with over 1500 reported. Victoria had 183 locally acquired cases today, and the ACT had 15.

So whilst these numbers have continued to increase, I think the enormous efforts that have gone into really trying to contain the case numbers have been successful. And those efforts through testing people presenting with testing, both because they've been requested to or they're symptomatic, the contact tracing that the public health teams across the jurisdictions are doing, and also the industry and their COVID-safe plans, and then the community and their adherence to the restrictions recommended, which by and large is fantastic, including mask wearing. So if it wasn't for all those things, we would be seeing much higher case numbers. So it's good to see that numbers are at least being contained, whilst they're on the increase.

And of course, the other big component of that is the vaccination programme, and we have some good news around the vaccination program. So, for daily numbers, we've seen more than 20.8 million vaccine doses have been administered across the country to date. And of the eligible population aged over 16, more than 62.7 per cent have received their first dose. So that's fantastic news. And in New South Wales, it's as high as 70 per cent, which is even better. And 38.2 per cent of people across the country have received their second dose. So they are approaching nearly fully vaccinated. And again, in New South Wales, that number's a little higher at 40 per cent. So that's fantastic news.

And finally, those we know who are most vulnerable, the over 60s, 85 per cent are protected with a first dose. So in the last seven days, as the vaccination rollout really continues to amp up, there've been one- more than 1.9 million vaccines doses administered across Australia, which is almost the population of Perth. And last Wednesday, the 25 August, was the highest day so far for doses of vaccine administered across the country, a record of 335,420 doses. And this Tuesday just gone, Tuesday the 31st, was a record for states and territories with 153,903 doses. So it's great to see records being broken as people turn up to get their vaccines as supply becomes more stable.

So on the topic of supply, I do have some good news as well today. So the additional 500,000 Singapore doses or doses coming from Singapore have been released by the TGA, so tested and batch released, and dispatch has commenced to states and territories and primary care as per the announced per capita allocations. And some other news, the- we know we're getting an additional 4 million doses of Pfizer from the UK under a sharing agreement. And I've been advised that the first batch of those doses is currently in the air, and that was planned to be about 290,000 doses. But fortunately, we're expecting now 450,000 doses, so a net increase of 160,000 on the first batch that's currently winging its way here to Australia. So the additional supply is really reassuring and does mean that we just would like to encourage all Australians, given the circumstances, to book in and go and get their first dose as soon as possible, and particularly Australians over the age of 60, who we know are most vulnerable.

So I'm happy to take any questions.


With the additional Pfizer doses that we're getting, how long would take the TGA roughly to release in batch test the ones coming from the UK? And given we're getting this kind of big influx of doses, do you expect to see more of those daily vaccination records broken in coming weeks and days?

SONYA BENNETT:               

So to the first question, I understand- I don't know exactly how long it'll take the TGA, but I understand in this batch it really occurred in very quick time, particularly for the Singapore doses, and I expect that'll be the same for the remaining doses that we continue to see. And we're expecting most of the UK doses to arrive over September. So I think there's going to be plenty of vaccine out there. I think the records- the fact we're seeing 1.9 million doses already a week means that we're really going to get to some of those targets, not quite the second dose, but the first dose targets very quickly, if you think about how many we've vaccinated. So really in a week or so, 80 per cent of the population will have had their first dose if they turn up and get vaccinated. So I think as far as daily vaccinations, that really depends obviously on the number of sites out there vaccinating. And at some point, we'll reach a cap, but there'll be- there should be plenty of opportunities for Australians to go in and get a vaccine.


And just secondly, a few states, particularly Queensland, Tasmania, WA, don't really want to open up their state borders until they've at least reached that 80 per cent double dosed vaccination target. Do you think, given the fact that they have little or no COVID themselves, that's a reasonable approach for those states?


Well, state borders have and always will be a matter for the states and territories. The reopening plan that's been informed by the Doherty modelling sets two targets of 70 per cent fully vaccinated and 80 per cent fully vaccinated. Of course, when 80 percent of people are fully vaccinated, that protection's going to be that much higher. But the modelling shows at 70 per cent that we should be able to see, you know, changes in public health and social measures that are in community and potentially some changes in contact tracing and other methods, because at that level of vaccination, the protection is reasonable to be able to do those things. Of course, I mean, even beyond 80 percent, the higher the vaccination coverage we get, and even as we reach 80 per cent, vaccination will continue to be available for everybody. So we'd like to see people who aren't vaccinated still continue to get vaccinated. Of course, the higher vaccination coverage for those that are eligible, then the better for everybody.

Are there any questions from those online?


Yes. It's Melissa from ABC here, sorry, I'll quickly jump in. The New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said she was very pleased that the Singaporean and UK Pfizer doses were arriving, saying it would help fill a gap that might otherwise have presented in September. Can you explain for us how these extra doses from overseas have changed that rollout process or the availability of dosages over the next month in particular?

SONYA BENNETT:               

It's- I can't explain in detail. It's probably a question for the vaccination taskforce. I guess what I'd say is the arrival of extra doses has meant that some planning could be brought forward and extra doses allocated to states and territories at the same time as demand is increasing in the population, which is a good thing to see, as well as extra vaccine sites being on board, particularly in regional communities. So I think that generally just means that planning, a lot of that will come forward if people turn up to get vaccinated, which we're sure they will. So far, they've been doing a fantastic job, and clearly the demand's out there.

Any other questions from anyone on the phone?


We understand that hospital admissions for children are rare, but we're now told that there are three children in ICU in New South Wales. Now, it was only a couple of days ago that Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly was saying there'd only been three ICU for the entire pandemic. Can you update us of what the current numbers are for the current pandemic? How many of those children have been placed on ventilators? And in terms of ICU more generally, do you expect the one-to-one ratio of nurses to patients- can that be maintained in coming weeks in New South Wales?

SONYA BENNETT:               

So I'll answer the first question regarding children in intensive care, and, of course, I mean, we can only report the data available to any point in time. And I similarly understand that there are three children in ICU at the moment. I also understand that they all have comorbidities or other illnesses and- which would make them- potentially make them more prone to severe disease. I can't answer the question of ventilators. And that's really, you know, probably for privacy reasons, but also a matter for New South Wales.

But as we- we're continuing to see increases in daily cases, as I mentioned at the beginning. And so we would expect to see- continue to see cases in children, and those who are most vulnerable may well have more severe disease. I think the best way that we as a community can protect children is to be vaccinated. And I think particularly as parents, if you have young children, any young children, not just those with comorbidities, if you get- have yourself vaccinated and you ensure your family and friends who are around those children are vaccinated, that's the best way we're going to protect children in the longer term, particularly those most prone with other illnesses.

To the second question around workforce in ICUs, I mean, there's no doubt that the hospital system, both the wards and critical care in New South Wales, are under strain. And because- despite the success of the vaccination program, we're still not at those levels that we'd like to be of 70 and 80 per cent. And so with the size of the case numbers in New South Wales, their system is under strain. But they- we've been planning myself back in the Queensland system for the last 18 months, with the support of the Commonwealth, have been planning for this scenario for a long time. And New South Wales is implementing those plans and managing that stress and surge as we speak and monitoring it very closely.

But, you know, moving forward, I think it's something- there is more planning going on, and all states and territories will learn from what's going on in New South Wales, and all states and territories, with the support of the Commonwealth, are reviewing their plans for both critical care and hospital care, including surge capacity if necessary. But, you know, we hope that by the time we get to 70 and 80 per cent vaccination coverage, with ongoing contact tracing and public health measures and other things such as community mask wearing, there may still be some other community requirements in place that we won't see surge across the board. Of course, we may in local areas, and as I said, those plans are underway.


Okay. Can I just ask a follow-up on co-morbidity? Because sometimes when you talk about the fact that all of the children who are currently in ICU have underlying conditions, people don't know what that means or why it's relevant or are you talking about something that's quite mild in- like asthma, in which case is that relevant. What is the definition of an underlying condition? And why is it mentioned, why is it relevant to explaining why they might end up in ICU?

SONYA BENNETT:              

So not knowing nor wanting to pass on the details of particular cases, there are known what we call risk factors for severe COVID, and the Commonwealth has published them for some time. Asthma is one of them, moderate to severe asthma, as is obesity, chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease, and immunosuppression. So a number of other factors. So we know with people with those conditions that they are more prone to severe disease. Age alone is also an independent risk factor, but with age and comorbidities, then again, your risk of severe disease increases. So they're the types of things we would expect. And I think if any parent is concerned about their own child, particularly if they have other illnesses, then they should have that discussion with their general practitioner.

Any other questions, otherwise I'll wrap up?

Thank you very much.



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