Date published: 
27 March 2020
Media event date: 
27 March 2020
Media type: 
Statement
Audience: 
General public

SABRA LANE:

Professor Paul Kelly is Australia's Deputy Chief Medical Officer and he joins us now. Good morning.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Good morning Sabra.

SABRA LANE:

When will Australia know if social distancing measures are working? When will we see the curve going down?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well look, I can't predict the future completely but we have put in a lot of measures over the last few weeks, as people are aware, and there may be more in the future. And I expect that we will be starting to see the effect of the measures in relation to travelling in the coming week, but others will take longer. It's usually 2 to 4 weeks after measures are in place that we would start to see that.

SABRA LANE:

An article in The Medical Journal of Australia says, at the current rate, intensive care beds could be overwhelmed in 10 days. What's your response to that?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, if we were to peak in 10 days, I think that would be a major success. I don't think we'll be peaking in 10 days, but more importantly, we will definitely not be overburdening our intensive care units in 10 days. I disagree with that premise.

SABRA LANE:

Well, hospitals are trying to double their ICU capacity right now to more than 4,000 beds. When will that be ready?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, that's well in train, Sabra, and we're also looking to purchase further ventilators and so forth and a lot's been discussed about that over the recent days. We've [indistinct] very few…

SABRA LANE:

[Interrupts] Will that be ready for 10 days' time?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

We won't need that extra capacity in 10 days' time. We've had very few people in intensive care up to now. The latest figures are almost 3,000 cases. We'll surpass 3,000 today. But of those, up until yesterday, there were only 20 that have been in ICU the entire time that we've been having cases since January. So, we've got many more than 20 beds in our ICUs.

SABRA LANE:

When will that surge capacity, though, be ready?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Oh it's virtually ready now, Sabra. We've been working on this for months and indeed, most hospitals in Australia have a surge plan every winter. We get a lot of flu cases and that puts pressure on our hospitals every winter. So, the hospitals are very prepared for this sort of thing and we really ramped that up.

SABRA LANE:

[Talks over] We do but we also hear stories of ramping-ambulances ramping and people being kept in corridors. When are you confident that those 4,000 beds will be in place?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

They'll be in place when the need is needed.

SABRA LANE:

And that is?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, we hope that they won't be needed. But if they are needed, it will be when this peaks, which will be in the coming weeks or months.

SABRA LANE:

What about the doctor that we just heard from in the package? Her practice can't get masks. They're recycling them. Sending cases elsewhere and they're improvising with items from hardware shops. When will all GP practices have access to masks and not be trying to recycle them?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, I must say that that story you just ran, Sabra, gives me great hope. The innovation — the innovative way that people are approaching scarcity and are approaching self-isolation, are approaching scarcity in all sorts of things not just in medical equipment, is extraordinary and it really talks to how — what a wonderful country we're living in in terms of that.

Yes. Look, we would all wish that we had enough...

SABRA LANE:

[Interrupts] When it comes to, sorry, infection control, how comfortable are you that doctors are recycling masks?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, recycling is one of the options that can be and may have to be looked at, but I can say that we had 2.4 million extra masks arrived in the country yesterday. We've distributed 8 million out to various places, particularly in primary care.

We've opened 179 fever clinics now. I would say the health sector, in general, because many of those have been opened by the states and territories, by Defence and some of the GP clinics. And there are about — there are over 90 or so being planned in the coming weeks. So, we — that is part of our process of decreasing demand on PPE and protect — making sure our health care workers are completely protected.

In terms of the innovative things like snorkel sets and visors, as long as they are being cleaned properly between patients, then that is a reasonable thing. It's not ideal, I absolutely admit that. But we've had an unprecedented decrease in supply of masks, an unprecedented increase in demand of masks and other personal protective equipment, and we're addressing that.

SABRA LANE:

Will there come a point when all GP practices will comfortably be supplied, or they're going to have to keep improvising throughout this crisis?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, the way we've been trying to do this is to make sure that we have enough places in the system where people can go to. But the introduction of Telehealth, for example, over the last few weeks, has been enormously successful and welcomed by GPs all over the country as well as other healthcare professions.

We've had a large number of people who have taken up that option. That obviously is a good thing for personal protection for both healthcare workers and for patients…

SABRA LANE:

But the current...

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

…And the fever clinics and so on we're setting up are also related to that, to make sure that we have people that are very specifically trained in infection control, have all the protective equipment they require, as well as the lab tests to do the — to make the diagnosis and that's how we're handling that issue at the moment.

SABRA LANE:

Of the current caseload, about 115 cases have no known source; another 432 cases being urgently traced. If every one of those cases had the potential to infect 400 people in a month, that's 218,000 cases within a month. When will there be a total shutdown, given the Burnet Institute's Professor Brendan Crabb says it should be now?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, I made the offer for Brendan to ring me yesterday and he hasn't taken that up, but I'm happy to talk to him about his views. Look, the issue with the measures we've put in place — there's no dispute amongst the experts and others that are making statements about these things over the last few days is they are not in dispute.

SABRA LANE:

[Talks over] There's plenty of dispute.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, the dispute about what we're dealing with is not a dispute. We're dealing with infectious disease. It spreads from person to person due to close contact and the best way to stop that is to stop having close contact with people and to have minimal contact with the minimum number of people. That's been our message all along. And the measures that have been put in place so far are related to that total shutdown. It would also look to have the same effect.

The only dispute we have is when that should happen. And there may well come a time, and it may be soon, that certain states may have to make those decisions based on their own particular issues…

SABRA LANE:

[Talks over] Okay.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

…But 215 people without epidemiological links is less than 5% and that is a sign that we are actually finding most of the cases and getting them to isolate quickly.

SABRA LANE:

Professor Paul Kelly, thank you very much. We're going to have to leave it there. That's Australia's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly.

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