Date published: 
22 June 2020
Media event date: 
21 June 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

NICK COATSWORTH:

To 12 noon today there've been 25 new cases diagnosed with COVID-19 bringing the national number of cases to 7,461. The number of people who have regrettably lost their lives to COVID-19 in Australia remains at 102. There are 15 individuals in hospital, of whom two are in intensive care units around the country. And we have conducted over two million tests for COVID-19.

To provide some detail as to the distribution of those cases around the country - in New South Wales to 12 noon today there were five cases diagnosed, all of whom had COVID-19 acquired overseas and remain in hotel quarantine and isolation. In Western Australia there was one new case diagnosed, acquired overseas and in hotel quarantine. In Victoria there have been 19 new cases diagnosed to 12 noon today, three of those were acquired overseas, four were acquired locally and linked to a known outbreak, 10 cases were locally acquired and not linked to a known outbreak, and two of them are currently under investigation.

Now, you will have seen over the past 24 hours that the Victorian Premier, the Victorian Health Minister, and the Victorian Chief Health Officer have provided updates extensively on the current situation with regard to coronavirus in Victoria. And the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee met today to receive an update from Professor Brett Sutton and colleagues from the Victorian Government Department of Health and Human Services on the current epidemiology of cases in Victoria.

Now, it is a timely reminder that in a population that is not immune to the virus, to COVID-19, that we will get from time to time outbreaks and clusters as we have seen in Victoria. It is certainly the case though, that in the past week we have seen 116 in cases diagnosed in Victoria - up from 35 - so it is clear that those, the numbers have increased in Victoria and, as the Premier and Health Minister expressed, those numbers are of concern. And we note that the Victorian Government has recommended that household gatherings, once again, be limited to five individuals.

Again, a timely reminder that, as all Australians there are restrictions on how we live that we have really done well in pursuing, but those will continue while we remain not immune to COVID-19, whilst there is not a vaccine, nor an effective treatment, and while cases continue to increase around the world. And that those restrictions have and will be critically important to the control of the virus. Importantly as well, for those states where restrictions are lifting, that doesn't imply a lifting of our personal behaviour standards that we've become so used to - so the critically important elements to stopping the virus transmitting from one person to another, excellent hand hygiene, downloading the COVIDSafe app, keeping our distance where we can and, importantly, paying very close attention to our own symptoms and that of those around us. And certainly, if we do have symptoms not engaging in the community, not going to work, and ensuring that we get tested as soon as possible. All those elements have been exceptionally successful in controlling COVID-19 in Australia thus far and there is no reason to expect that that will be any different into the future.

I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION:

On today's meeting of the AHPPC, is there recommendations regarding changes to social distancing? We know that the Victorian CMO recommended possibly- well he was going to look at face masks, for example. Any new advice on wearing face masks?

NICK COATSWORTH:

So, face masks were discussed today at the AHPPC meeting. The position on face masks in Australia has been clear, that in circumstances of low prevalence - and we should note that it is still a low prevalence environment, even though there has been an increase in the absolute number of cases in Victoria, or associated with those outbreaks, the overall numbers remain low. So the position that we have taken, as the AHPPC, on face mask use in particular remains the same - in this circumstance where we only have very low levels of community transmission that the value of face masks in the community is limited and that recommendation hasn't changed.

QUESTION:

On border closures, has the AHPPC's position on that changed? Given that obviously the spike in Victoria won't mean that anyone in WA be affected because that's a hard border closure. Are you still recommending that there's no medical grounds to state border closures? And they don't have any value in circumstances where we see such outbreaks?

NICK COATSWORTH:

So, I think the question implies that the AHPPC had, or will have, positions on border closures - which, as you know, we do not. That is a matter for the states and territories and their first ministers and relevant departments, so we don't have anything to add to that.

QUESTION:

Increasing cases in Victoria, though small comparatively, they're overwhelmingly community transmission - not overseas returned travellers. Given we're exactly two weeks after the Black Lives Matter 's protest, can you confidently rule out that there aren't eventually going to be connections that links back to those mass gatherings?

NICK COATSWORTH:

So, I would just contend with the word ‘overwhelmingly’, There's a majority of cases that are community transmitted - about 60 per cent, as opposed to hotel quarantine, which is now 40 per cent - and that's a reversal of the previous statistics over the past month or so. So, there's still a large number of cases in Victoria that have been diagnosed through hotel quarantine.

There are three cases that have been diagnosed as people who have COVID-19 and attended the Black Lives Matter protest, but there is no evidence that there has been chains of community transmission that we are aware of through the Black Lives Matter protests.

QUESTION:

But you have at least 10 people who don't know where it came from. Through- by process of some people not having very prominent conditions present, they could have spread from those gatherings?

NICK COATSWORTH:

So, the contact tracing, as you know, is a very rigorous process. Those cases, whilst we don't know where they have come from, the contact tracing will include genomics and we'll use genomics to assist us in determining where they came from. But there is no evidence from the extensive investigation that Victoria has undertaken that those cases are linked to the Black Lives Matter protest.

QUESTION:

On borders again, I mean the AHPPC doesn't have a position but it has had advice that there's no medical grounds for state borders to be closed. Will that advice be revised at all? Or does it remain that the advice is there's no medical need for state borders to be closed?

NICK COATSWORTH:

In actual fact - I'll repeat my answer to the previous question - which was the AHPPC actually hasn't had a position on border closures. We have never made a recommendation on border closures. There has been some individual commentary from officials on the need for border closures but the AHPPC actually hasn't had a position on that and we will continue to leave that to state first ministers.

QUESTION:

On the easing restrictions, we've obviously seeing Victoria put a pause on what they are do going, should other states consider putting a pause on easing restrictions? I mean is this one of those moments where we have to catch our breath and say ‘lets see what is happening’, rather than continue with the stampede to open up the economy?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well again, I'd contend with a couple of those words. I don't think at any point we would have viewed our lifting of restrictions, or opening up of the economy, as a stampede. Everything we have done has been in a safe and cautious manner, and in a proportionate way. And similarly, we've made it very clear that states and territories will make their decisions based on their local epidemiology.

So, it would be unreasonable for WA, or Northern Territory, or indeed Queensland at the moment to be making decisions on their restrictions necessarily with a close eye on what's going on in Victoria - because the epidemiology is different. And as you see, as the epidemiology changes - albeit slightly in Victoria with an increase in the number of cases - so too has the Victorian government come forward and make recommendations to reimpose those restrictions on the number of people that you can have in your household. So I think this is a good example of how things are going to work into the future, and it's an important example because it will show how a state can get on top of outbreaks of this nature in Victoria and then move forward.

QUESTION:

Doctor, on COVID treatment, just looking at a recent trial of NHS patients out of the UK, does Australia have a stockpile, or have access to dexamethasone? Or is that something the AHPPC is looking at?

NICK COATSWORTH:

So, dexamethasone is a steroid, a corticosteroid. It's an oldish drug, it's in wide circulation and wide use. It's not something that we necessarily feel we need to stockpile because it's in such wide use and it's so available. So, keeping in mind that dexamethasone is not a direct acting antiviral, it doesn't actually do anything to the virus - it sorts out the complications of the inflammation associated with it. So it's- the recovery trial - they are promising results, we look forward to seeing them replicated in other trials. But we're not aware of any shortage of dexamethasone at the moment.

QUESTION:

Dr Coatsworth, you talk about personal behaviour and responsibility, these clusters around family gatherings or in-home gatherings still pale in comparison in terms of the size to the Black Lives Matter. If we can get off lightly with those large protests, are you worried that that create a complacency elsewhere in the community, they saw those big protests with limited cases, and have larger gatherings at home.

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well that would be very hard to conclude. I mean, I haven't interviewed the people in that particular cluster and I don't think that question could necessarily be inferred - that it was the Black Lives Matter protests that then led to people gathering in household clusters. I think what's going on, and what's going on around the world is that there is a certain amount of time that we can cope with these restrictions on our lives. And people in general - whether it is getting out and going to Black Lives Matter protest, or going to visit your friends and relatives - these are things we do as human beings. So I think that is more what we're seeing at the moment, and I think the message just has to be abundantly clear that we are- we don't want people stop living their lives, we want people to interact, but we want them to do so in a way that is safe and stops the virus from spreading. So, I think it's probably a nationwide thing that we want to get out and do what we do as humans.

QUESTION:

The Shadow Health Minister this morning was saying that premiers were taking a more cautious approach are doing the right thing, to be safe rather than sorry. I understand what you said in terms of the epidemiology of, say, Victoria - that shouldn't affect what WA does - but maybe it should affect obviously in terms of our border restrictions. Do you agree that it makes sense for us- WA to take a cautious approach in those sorts of matters? That does just simply makes sense?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, I think we've got, you know, we're a continent and we have got a certain situation in Victoria at the moment that will naturally play into decisions around Australia. I guess the point of my previous response was - in terms of the number of people that you can have in a gathering, the number of people you can have in your household, the number of people you can have in a pub - that is still going to remain different from state to state, and the states will make decisions based on their own local epidemiology, which is completely appropriate.

QUESTION:

What's the advice on hugging and handshaking? Is it still a no to both of those?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, that's certainly my personal view. I mean I think these are the sort of things that have to stay the same, sorry, that can't change. There are various things that help us transmit the virus are very close contact is one of them. So, it's a hard thing to remember, you know. You've got to catch yourself out now when you see your friends and family who you have not seen for a long time. But these things are nonetheless important and, arguably, far more important than, say, wearing masks. I mean, the social distancing measures - like washing your hands, like keeping your distance, like not hugging or kissing, and like staying at home when you're actually unwell - that is the mainstay of we can do as individuals, that's the personal responsibility element. And then there's the restriction element that the governments recommend that we do. I think I've got a- I think I've got one on the phone and given we've all had one go we should-

QUESTION:

Thanks, Nick. I just want to ask you about the, we've got the case in Victoria with the Essendon football player who's been diagnosed. I'm just curious as to how you go about, and how Victorians authorities go about figuring out close contacts in the case of an athlete? Is it that sharing change rooms? Is it training in a manner that involves contact sport? What sort of things will determine which of that players close contacts needed to be quarantined after the diagnosis?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Thanks, Tom. And the question reflects to the COVID-19 positive case within the Essendon Football Club, and whether there's any substantive differences, or indeed how you go about contact tracing of an individual within a sporting club that was COVID-19 positive. And I think, Tom, the answer is that it's tempting to take these high profile cases and consider that there might be a different approach. They're certainly not, a close contact is a close contact and that definition is 15 minutes or more for- at a distance of 1.5 metres, or two hours in the same room. So, you know, the contact tracers, the disease detectives will be applying those criteria to this case, just as they will for all the other cases down in Victoria. So, I think it's important that we let that sort of public-health investigation take its course, and I'm sure we'll hear in due course what the outcome for the Essendon Football Club will be. I don't have any more particular information on that case.

QUESTION:

Can I just clarify, so for the states- for the other states, they can continue on a path they're going in terms of easing restrictions and things like that. There's no need for a pause? Or a two-week reassessment period until we see what happens in Victoria? Other states are free to keep opening up?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well look, the message is that each state will have their restrictions dictated by their local epidemiology, so- and they will continue to do that. So whether- how much of an eye they have on Victoria will be entirely up to them. It is, I think an important thing to say that each state controls their own public-health unit and decision-making, but all of us in Australia want to see the outbreaks in Victoria brought under control. And as a result of the meeting today of the AHPPC, and the update from Professor Sutton, we have every confidence that that's going to be case.

I'll take two more.

QUESTION:

Dr Coatsworth, some of the cases in Victoria are related to people who are ill going to work, of people who have been confirmed COVID and then interacting with others. You've stood here, dozens of times, told Australians to exactly not to do that - if they are sick to stay home. Are you disappointed that that has been disregarded so quickly? And at a crucial time in the easing of restrictions?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Look, I'm not disappointed at all because I don't think in those cases in any way, shape, or form it is individuals deliberately going against what we've said without a broader context to why that decision is being made.

So, let me give you the very clear example of doctors - we go to work when we are sick all the time, we have done for years. We've even got a term for it, it's called ‘presenteeism’, not absenteeism. And there's a whole range of reasons why someone who is sick may turn up at work despite being asked, or it being recommended that they don't. One of those, of course, is that there are people who don't have sick leave, there are people in casual employment, there are a lot of people around the country who are suffering socio-economic stress at the moment. So, the important thing then is to recognise that, and work out what we can do to assist people so that they don't turn up to work when they're unwell.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:

Last question.

QUESTION:

Just to make this clear, I accept that the AHPPC doesn't have a position on state border closures, but the Resources Minister, as early as this morning, and the Prime Minister repeatedly says that the medical advice is borders should not be opening. Should Commonwealth Ministers not be saying that anymore?

NICK COATSWORTH:

No. I think obviously as a health official I'm not in a position to say what Commonwealth Ministers should or shouldn't be saying. What I have said though, very clearly today, that it is not the AHPPC's role to be making decisions about national borders.

QUESTION:

What medical advice are they talking about then? If you're saying that the AHPPC doesn't have a position on Australian borders? What medical advice are these ministers talking about?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, the AHPPC simply hasn't had a position on borders and it's up to the states and territories to make decisions about their borders - that's what the federation's about.

And we'll close the conference there, thank you.

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