Deputy Chief Medical Officer press conference about COVID-19 on 31 May 2020

Read the transcript of the press conference given by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth about coronavirus (COVID-19) on 31 May 2020.

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Good afternoon, I’m Dr Nick Coatsworth with today's update on coronavirus disease in Australia. I can report today that 7,195 positive cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in Australia, and 6,614 of those people have recovered. Regrettably the national deaths from coronavirus still stand at 103. In terms of our hospital capacity there are only three Australians currently in the intensive care units around the country and only one of those is having their breathing supported using a ventilator. There have been over 6.13 million downloads of the COVIDSafe app to people's smartphones around the country.

I wanted to spend some time today on World Tobacco Day, the 31st of May, talking about the importance of quitting smoking and tobacco products during this coronavirus pandemic. We know that if you are a smoker and you contract COVID-19, you are at greater risk of that disease being more severe, having more severe COVID-19 disease and progressing towards things like intensive care. Smoking itself does not appear to increase the risk of getting COVID-19 however, but that important element that if you are a smoker and you do get it, severe disease is more likely. And the great news is that Australians who are smokers have cottoned on to this. They've seen it in the media, they’ve seen us saying it, and there have been a 300 per cent increase in the downloads of the Australian Department of Health, My Quit Buddy app, on to people's smartphones, suggesting there is a very large number of Australians out there who smoke tobacco products, who are trying to quit as we speak. Now, as a respiratory physician I have told or asked a lot of people in my time to quit smoking and I know how hard that is, what a big step that is for people but such an important step at this time, taking I guess advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to give you that extra impetus, that extra bit of will power that's so difficult when one is quitting smoking is such an important step. So, I want to congratulate any Australian who has decided to quit this year. We have a lot of apps and products to support you. We have Quitline and all your family and friends should be supporting you to do that very difficult but ultimately so rewarding task of quitting smoking. There is no safe level of tobacco consumption. Tobacco is linked of course to 16 different types of cancers, to heart disease, to a range of chronic respiratory conditions and of course emphysema. All these are many, many good reasons to take up the challenge of quitting smoking today.

I also wanted to spend some time discussing the concept of asymptomatic testing for COVID-19. As we move into a phase where we have been for several weeks where the number of cases are often in single digits over a 24-hour period, the number of new cases, it's tempting to think that we should be broadening our testing to a whole load of people out there who don't have any symptoms at all. Now, we are aware that COVID-19 can be carried by someone who doesn't have any symptoms of a cough or a cold. We are aware that on occasion it’s been demonstrated that people can transmit COVID-19 even without symptoms. We think that asymptomatic transmission or transmitting when you don't have symptoms is a less likely pathway of transmission than if you do have symptoms. But more importantly, if you consider at the moment that well over 24 million Australians probably don't have any symptoms of a cough, cold, runny nose or a sore throat, there will be a much smaller proportion of Australians at this very point in time who do have those symptoms.

In terms of bang for your buck, where you're most likely to get a positive test, it's amongst those Australians who have symptoms of a cough, a cold, a sore throat, a runny nose. Any of those symptoms you might wake up on Monday or Tuesday morning and think. gee I better not go to work. If you do that, then the next step is to look on your State Health Department website, establish where you can get a COVID-19 test and go get tested. So that's essentially why we really want to target with our Australian National Surveillance Plan - that we call it case-based testing - so, people who actually have symptoms, they're the ones that we want to go and get tested for COVID-19 because that is how our disease detectives are going to find those small clusters within our community and stop them expanding even further.

Do we test people without any symptoms? Yes, we do. But in very targeted ways, in ways that are directed by our public health units. So for example, in the outbreaks that you've seen in Victoria, in the cases you've recently seen in Queensland, the public health authorities there will have tested people who have minimal or no symptoms in that very localised geographic area. But that sort of approach of testing asymptomatic people needs to be driven by those public health units in response to outbreaks.

This is part of what we're calling in the Australian National Disease Surveillance Plan, the suppression response strategy and I'll conclude by just defining that for you. Which is that we are looking for, as the World Health Organization suggests, the sustainable suppression of transmission at a low level in the Australian community where we are balancing the socio economic benefit of lifting restrictions with their public health risk. And as you see state and territory health departments and the Commonwealth talk about lifting restrictions, remember that statement - that it is all about a balance between the socio economic benefit of lifting restrictions which is significant, but we're always looking at what that public health risk might be. We're taking a deliberately safe and cautious approach and most importantly we're taking the time to gather the data over the coming weeks to determine whether it's safe to move to the next round of lifting restrictions. Thank you.


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