Date published: 
18 May 2020
Media event date: 
14 May 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

NICK COATSWORTH:

... Tell you that today, 6989 Australians have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Sadly, 98 Australians have lost their lives to COVID-19 infections. There have been 14 new cases in the past 24 hours, and to date, we've had 943,000 tests, which in the past 24 hours alone represent an additional 34,000 tests for COVID-19.

At this point in time, there's 51 Australians in hospital with coronavirus disease, 18 of those are in our intensive care units, and 13 are on ventilators. And we note and acknowledge that it's a particularly difficult time for the family of those patients, and we wish them well as they battle coronavirus disease.

I wanted to make some comment today on the increasing mobility that we've seen around the world. Some of the images in the media obviously from the United Kingdom, where we've seen, particularly tube trains that have more people on them. Even around Australia, we've seen an increase in mobility, and this is a natural consequence, of course, of us wanting to open up our economy. We are in a very unique position in Australia, coming from a situation where there are a very few cases of coronavirus disease currently circulating in our community, where we've done very large numbers of testing, testing blitzes in Victoria that have only uncovered a handful, really, of cases of COVID-19, where there hasn't been a distinct link with other clusters or transmission chains.

So this puts Australia in contrast to some of those other nations that I've mentioned, in a very unique position and in a good position by which we can start to open up and lift the restrictions in the three steps that we have outlined over the past week. But that increase mobility, of course, means increased contact between people, and as we consider going back to work, as we all have discussions with our employers about getting back into the workplace, we naturally turn our minds to things like returning to public transport, returning to shared communal areas, areas that we all know it is difficult to maintain our physical distance within.

 So, there will be a number of pieces of advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee that will be of assistance to people, making those decisions about how we use public transport, how public transport can be made safe, how we can safely return to the workplace. And those guidelines also will appear on Safe Work Australia and will form part of discussions in the coming weeks.

So there is only so much we can do, of course, with regulation, and we would like to again to reiterate the personal responsibility that we all have as Australians for keeping COVID-safe. And the way we need to do that, as we have been saying for a long time now, is stay at home if you are at all unwell. If you have any of those symptoms of respiratory viral infection, please go and get tested. If you have a cough, if you have sore throat, if you have a fever, runny nose. Even the mildest of symptoms that you may recognise as a cold, we want you to contact your general practitioner to get a test or look on your state or territory health website in order to find out where one of the rapid test facilities, the drive-through testing facilities, may be if there is one near you.

If you don't have a cold and you're able to go to work and get out and about, make sure you maintain that 1.5 metre distance, make sure you continue to wash your hands at every possible opportunity, make sure you talk to people in your community, particularly small business owners. And if they've done a great job in maintaining physical distance in their business, tell them well done. If you can observe that there's not hand sanitiser there or there's something that they need, let them know that too, and together we can make sure that we're COVID-safe.

 And the final thing of course, we have reached 5.7 million downloads of the COVIDSafe app. We know that there are in excess of 15 million people in Australia with smart phones. so there are many more people who have the opportunity to download the COVIDSafe app, and we would strongly encourage them to do so, as part of the way of keeping yourself, your friends, your family safe. As part of giving the disease detectives that extra boost that they need to be able to shut down the spot fires, shut down the clusters of COVID-19 as and when they occur.

Happy to take questions at that point.

QUESTION: 

Dr Coatsworth, some cruise ship companies are advertising cruises for as early as September. How realistic of a timeframe do you believe that is, and what would be your health advice to Australians who are perhaps keen to start booking to actually travel the world once again?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Look, I think the health advice is that we've put in a three-step plan towards recovery. Booking cruise ship holidays don't appear in those three steps, and we're only at step 1. Some jurisdictions have moved to step 2. I think from my response to that, you can gleam that I would say to people it is too early to be booking that sort of holiday. You may- there will be an opportunity with time to consider where your vacation is, and whether cruise ships are the right place to go, but I would suggest that that's too early at this point in time.

QUESTION:

Dr Coatsworth, as more Australians return out into the community and into work, has the AHPPC reconsidered its advice on the wearing of facemasks in public? If so, what discussions might have taken place, and if not, why is that advice not to wear them remaining the same?

NICK COATSWORTH:

So, we have discussions about facemasks certainly on a weekly basis, if not more often than that. As you know, the evidence for using facemasks in the general community setting is not very strong as a means of preventing the transmission of COVID-19. Where facemasks are most effective, it is where, say, I have a cough or cold due to COVID-19. It is most effective for me to wear that mask, and that will stop me from transmitting it to someone else through a cough or a sneeze. It's not particularly effective for someone who doesn't have COVID-19 to wear masks as a means of protecting themselves. That's the first thing to say. The second thing, of course, is that the mask value, even though it's marginal, tends to increase the more cases you have within the community. So, if you are in the middle of a very severe epidemic, you may make the case for mask use in the general population. But certainly with the number of cases that we have at the moment, there would be no case and no advice that we would give that would favour mask use. It is, though, an ongoing discussion. We realised that it is something that is adopted in some nations around the world. Some nations around the world have a very strong tradition of facial mask use to prevent respiratory infection, even in the absence of COVID-19, even before COVID-19. But for Australia at the moment, the AHPPC has not changed its advice, and we don't recommend the general use of masks in the community.

QUESTION:

The Victorian Chief Health Officer has conceded that the abattoir cluster, Cedar Meats, could have been handled better. Did Victorian authorities drop the ball on this?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I might say that in responding to that question, we applaud the efforts of every single public health unit around the country in managing what are very challenging clusters of COVID-19, wherever they occur. So we think that every public health unit is doing a great job. We don't think that the Victorian public health unit or the Chief Health Officer dropped the ball in Cedar Meats. I think what those comments reflect though is a really positive outcome of the COVID-19 epidemic, which is that every time there is a cluster, there is significant reflection on behalf of that jurisdiction and public health unit as to how it could be handled better the next time. And if we're going to go forward as the Prime Minister and Brendan Murphy have said, we should expect as Australians to see clusters, then it's of utmost importance that we look at the clusters we have had and we learn from them and we learn how to manage them even better next time.

QUESTION:

I've just got another question from Victoria. Another two infections linked to the McDonald's cluster in Faulkner in Melbourne's north. Was the COVIDSafe app used to help trace these cases and warn the public that they may have been exposed while visiting the restaurant?

NICK COATSWORTH:

So, the COVIDSafe app is obviously up and running on individuals' phones, and has been since it was available to be downloaded two and a half weeks ago, so it's collecting those digital handshakes. All states and territories have the agreements in place to allow the COVIDSafe app to be used in a contact trace, and finally all states and territories have their public health officials that are now trained in using and incorporating COVIDSafe. Whether it's been used in that specific scenario depends entirely on whether the individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 had the COVIDSafe app on their phone. I'm not aware of that, we wouldn't be aware of that. But I think it is a timely call for all Australians to know that the only way the disease detectives can really use the COVIDSafe app is if it's on the phone of the person who's diagnosed with COVID-19. If it's not on their phone, COVIDSafe can't be used. So, it's a wake-up call and really a call for all Australians to consider downloading that app.

QUESTION:

Professor- Dr Coatsworth, sorry, your colleague Professor Murphy yesterday indicated that at an educated guess, maybe 20 million people in the world have coronavirus rather than the reported four. What are the countries that Australia sees as potentially not testing and therefore not doing as well dealing with the pandemic, and which countries can we rely on the data of in terms of maybe being comparable to Australia's accuracy?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Yeah, I mean, it's a good question. I think the problem is that a lot of countries had such a widespread community transmission before they even detected COVID-19, and so they largely restricted their testing to those who were in hospitals and so, if you like, there was an enormous tip of the iceberg where you had the severely unwell and then a lot of milder cases within the community that simply weren't detected. So, I think if you want to know what is closest to the truth about how many very severely affected patients you get as opposed to the total number of cases in the community, Australia's data is probably amongst the most reliable in the world. And the reason for that is because we've had a relatively small number of cases. When you have that huge number of cases, you simply don't have the testing architecture or infrastructure anywhere in the world to give you completely interpretation of that.

QUESTION:

As well, overnight New South Wales extended that 10-person rule from not just restaurants and cafes, but to pubs. I wonder, has the AHPPC had discussions around the potential impact of people being more intoxicated and how that might impact their ability or attentiveness to social distancing?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I think it's important to reiterate that we've offered a three-step plan, the AHPPC through National Cabinet, that offers states and territories the flexibility to lift restrictions in a more rapid way depending on their own individual circumstances. Then, of course, if it's a question of pubs and clubs opening, that limit of 10 is still- it's a significant limit on the amount of people in a pub or a club. I can't- there are few pubs or clubs that only ever have 10 people in them, but the majority of them are a lot more full than that, I guess. So, the amount of 10 people still offers the possibility of physical distancing.

On your specific point of intoxication and whether that makes physical distancing more difficult, the logical answer is yes, it does, and so that needs to be taken into consideration by any jurisdiction, by the AHPPC, and that's why nightclubs and pubs by and large are found towards the end of the three-step process and not at the start. But we're satisfied that a 10-person limit is satisfactory.

QUESTION:

Professor Coatsworth, just a question about this emerging link that we're seeing overseas, or possible link between Kawasaki disease and coronavirus. What is your advice to Australian parents who are probably a bit concerned for their own young children as we do start to ease restrictions and they start to have contact with other parts of the community?

NICK COATSWORTH:

So, as a parent I completely understand the anxiety that is provoked when we have such a potentially severe complication of COVID-19 disease like Kawasaki disease, or as we're calling it at the moment, PIMS-TS. But essentially, meaning a very severe complication that can be fatal. So, when you see those images and hear those reports, even if they're very rare, which it is, and even if it's only a handful of cases, which it is, it's likely to provoke a significant amount of concern amongst Australian parents.

 What I would say by means of reassurance though, is that Kawasaki disease caused by any virus is a very, very rare thing. We only have between 100 and 200 cases for Australia. We already have a Kawasaki disease surveillance system in Australia that predates COVID-19, so that will pick up any cases of Kawasaki or a Kawasaki-like syndrome over the coming weeks. We have very, very few cases of COVID-19 in children in Australia, so we- it's hard when you talk about risk, and we've talked a lot about risk in the past two months, but with that very small number of cases, the likelihood of a child getting Kawasaki-like syndrome related to COVID-19 is very, very small in Australia. So I hope that is of some reassurance to parents.

QUESTION:

Can you just clarify something for me? As places start to open up again, some shops and schools have been taking people's temperatures via their forehead as they enter; is that necessary and is that means by which of taking someone's temperature, is that accurate?

NICK COATSWORTH:

The- taking a temperature as a means of screening for any pandemic virus has always been a little controversial, and it remains so. I guess my personal view as a respiratory and infectious diseases physician is that, if one is unwell enough with a respiratory virus and you have a temperature, you're actually pretty crook, and most people stay at home. So, the number of people that you're likely to detect with a temperature check at a school or as you're going into a shop is very, very small and not likely to have a meaningful impact on detection of COVID-19. Whether an individual business chooses to do that or not or a school is entirely up to them, it's not something that we've necessarily recommended as effective.

QUESTION:

Dr Coatsworth, this weekend a number of states are relaxing their restrictions in terms of gatherings, outdoors and indoors. What's your message to people that might already be planning to max out the capacity of people they can have over or meet up with?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well my message is, if you're aware of what the maximum limit is, more power to you. Because every Australian should be aware of what the limit of gatherings within their individual state and territory, and if they wanted to go to that limit, that would be completely acceptable. The key is though, if you're invited round to a friend's place this weekend to catch up - and I can tell you that everybody in Australia wants to increase their social contact at the moment, but the messages have to remain the same. So, if you are feeling at all unwell with a cough or a cold, just ring up and apologise. Defer it to next weekend, it's not worth it, and go get yourself a COVID-19 test. You can ask your friends if anyone in their family is unwell, you can make sure that you're performing excellent hand hygiene, and when you go round to your mate's place, even if they're your best mate and you haven't seen them for weeks, don't give them a hug. We've got to change those sort of habits for the time of COVID-19 in 2020.

Okay. Thank you.

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