Date published: 
31 March 2020
Media event date: 
1 April 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

ALLISON LANGDON:

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Nick Coatsworth joins us now from Canberra. Nick, thanks for your time this morning. So yesterday we recorded the lowest number of new cases in the last 10 days, but we just heard from the New South Wales Chief Medical Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, and she put this down to less testing. Can you explain that?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

I can, Ally, thanks for having me on the show. Look, if you test less, you'll find less. So the numbers of testing vary from day to day, also on the weekend it could go down as people stay at home and don't get tested. So, it's about interpreting those results really cautiously. I would say that we've landed a punch on COVID-19, but it's nowhere near on the canvas.

The other explanation is this could be an effect of the extreme measures we are taking to make sure our Australians who have been travelling don't spread the virus. And we understand how hard it is being in a hotel at the moment, but really thank them for their contribution to stop the spread of the virus and soon they'll be home with their friends and families.

KARL STEFANOVIC:

I would have thought the last thing you want here is a level of complacency. In all the news bulletins last night it was good news, tonight the numbers have gone down. But that does need to be balanced right up against how many people were tested. If the number of tests, as you say, are fewer, then the results are going to be fewer. Can you give us a sense of the statistics here? Can you give us a sense of what happened over the weekend compared to, say, a week day?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

Look, I'd like to be able to, Karl. I don't have that data in front of me. I can clearly concur with Kerry, she's got the New South Wales data intimately with her. I think the important thing, though, is that the measures Scott Morrison put in place, the two-person limits on gatherings, limiting gatherings to our households only, really, that will start to bear fruit in seven to 10 days.

What we're worried about here is the cases in the community where we can't find the transmission. Because if we can't find the transmission, our public health people can't call the contacts — can't work out the transmission links and that becomes very, very difficult.

So they're small numbers at the moment, that's encouraging. But if we take the foot off the accelerator, if we relax in any way, those numbers will increase.

ALLISON LANGDON:

But this is the issue; the community to community transmission because at the moment, you're limited in who you're testing so unless you can say you've been in contact with someone who's been overseas or someone what is confirmed with coronavirus, you might have symptoms but you are not being tested.

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

That's almost the case, Ally. There's one caveat on that, that if you go into hospital and you have respiratory symptoms and you're hospitalised with a fever, you will get a test, regardless of your history of travel. So that is actually, importantly…

ALLISON LANGDON:

[Talks over] But that only then applies, I assume, to people who are very sick.

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

That's correct. So in the... we are the highest testing country in the world, but we have a finite number of tests. We can't test everyone with respiratory symptoms, so the second level of protection is to keep people apart.

The virus has only got one move, it's got to get from one person to another. And if we can stop that, we stop the virus.

KARL STEFANVOIC:

So this is the question — if the number of tests are fewer, the number of cases being reported as positive are fewer, because the number of tests are fewer, how do you get, actually get, an accurate read on how far up the curve we are and whether or not it's flattened?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

We have to carefully qualify this. We're talking about decrease in number of testing, probably in the thousands. That will ramp up again this week. There will be various reasons why that testing number was down. It was used very clearly by Kerry Chant as a reason to avoid complacency. I think, because you asked me in that previous question. That's exactly what we need to do.

So once we get an idea, you need several days and weeks of data, Karl, to be able to get an impression of what that curve is doing. Not just day on day.

KARL STEFANVOIC:

But what possible reason would there be for — Nick, I'm not prosecuting you here, I'm just trying to find out the answers to these questions. Why would the number of tests be reduced, when we're in the middle of and the thick of this thing?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

There wasn't a deliberate reduction in tests, there were just fewer done and there could be a variety of reasons for that. As I said, it could be that there were just less people turning up on the weekend to be tested. So there's so many reasons for that, I couldn't possibly come up with all of them, but it's not because we're reducing the testing numbers deliberately. We are testing as much as we possibly can. About 800 in every 100,000 which is the best in the world.

ALLISON LANGDON:

Dr Kerry Chant and I am only referring to New South Wales because they just held a media conference, so they're the most latest up-to-date figures we've got.

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

I understand.

ALLISON LANGDON:

They've now got 35 people in the state in ICU, that's up from 24 the previous day. So even if cases are increasing at a decreasing number, we are seeing more people hospitalised, 16 are on ventilators. Are you getting any word from our front-line staff of how they're coping and are they starting to really feel that pressure?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

I am getting word every day from front-line staff, I was a front-line staff member only 2 weeks ago in the Canberra health services and I am in constant contact across the country and people are feeling it. This is like a wave that's coming at you. You don't know how high it's going to be and you don't know when it's going to break. And that is an exceptionally difficult situation to be in.

The staff members who are caring for COVID-19 patients are doing a fantastic job and they need to be reassured that we do have our personal protective equipment coming in.

There were a million masks delivered yesterday. There were 2.4 million last week and there's plenty of what we call P2 masks in the national stockpile. So we will not send you out without armour. And if there are any hospitals with shortages at the moment, then we will deal with them.

It's very hard to see that the hospital might just have 2 weeks' supply, which is their usual supply. That's in the 10,000s. The national stockpile is in the 10 millions. So there's plenty of PPE out there for our staff.

KARL STEFANOVIC:

We asked this question yesterday, and I think we have to ask it again. We see scenes like in New York, with these make shift hospitals being built in Central Park. And we see all the ventilators they have. Do we have enough ventilators?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

So I can tell you the exact numbers there. We have usually 2,200 ventilated beds. By repurposing anaesthetic machines and various other things over the past 6 weeks, we've taken that number immediately, with no other action, to 4,400, and we're going for 7,500.

Now, that previous statistic you raised — 36 patients with COVID in ICU — and we are going for 7,500.

I'm not going to say that any health system in the world can withstand what US and Italy are going through, so we are going to stop it before it gets there.

But 7,500 ventilated beds is a significant number, and that's what we're working towards — 4,400 at the moment, 500 new ventilators due this week.

ALLISON LANGDON:

Dr Coatsworth, thank you for your time this morning.

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