Date published: 
9 June 2020
Media event date: 
8 June 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

DR NICK COATSWORTH: 

I can confirm today that there have been 7,265 cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in Australia, and 5 newly confirmed cases overnight. Three of those cases were diagnosed in New South Wales, 2 of whom were returned travellers, and one case is currently under investigation. There have been two new cases diagnosed in Victoria. One is a returned traveller in hotel quarantine, and the other was actually a resident of an aged care facility in north-eastern Victoria. That person is currently being isolated in hospital where they were transferred for an unrelated condition. The remaining residents of that particular facility have been placed in quarantine, and contact tracing has begun.

There have been no new deaths from COVID-19 overnight. Regrettably, 102 Australians have lost their lives to COVID-19. There are currently fewer than 460 active cases of COVID-19 in Australia, 19 individuals are hospitalised, 3 patients are in ICU and 2 of those are on ventilators, assisting them breathe with severe coronavirus disease.

I did want to highlight that the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past week has been 61, which is down from 91 the week prior. And nearly 7 out of 10 of those cases have been overseas acquired. So, low numbers of cases over the past week, sometimes in the single digits, as in today with 5 new cases overnight. And a large majority of those remain overseas acquired rather than community-acquired in Australia. After our peak of cases in March, we continue to see a sustained low number of cases on a daily basis in Australia.

I did want to mention today the funding announcement from the Minister of Health, Minister Hunt, of $2 million to help find a cure for motor neurone disease, I was a junior doctor at Royal North Shore Hospital when I was taught in a neurology term by Professor Dominic Rowe, who is one of Australia's leading researchers and clinicians treating motor neurone disease.

Dominic impressed upon me how severe, how unrelenting the condition of motor neurone disease is, how it takes the lives of those who are affected by it far too early, takes them away from their friends and family prematurely. It highlights to me the importance of ongoing funding for research, for conditions other than COVID-19, conditions that are very severe, and severely affect those who suffer from them. It also it makes me reflect, really, on the reason why we had to have the restrictions for COVID-19, why society had to undergo such a profound restriction on what we are used to.

But more importantly, why we need to continue those behaviours that have put us in such an important condition— led us to such an important position. And that is because COVID-19 would severely affect somebody with motor neurone disease, or many chronic conditions. For motor neurone disease in particular, a condition that will take someone's life far too early, getting infected with COVID-19 would take them away from the friends and family even sooner. It reminds me that COVID-19, we are still in the pandemic, it is still a danger to us, and it is still a danger to our most vulnerable people.

And the important measures of keeping our distance where we can, of washing our hands, of excellent hand hygiene, cough etiquette, and all those great behaviours that we've learnt. They must continue. COVID-19, as we lift the restrictions, must stay in the forefront of our minds, so we can protect the most vulnerable members of the community.

I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: 

Dr Coatsworth, should federal politicians who attended Black Lives Matter protests in the weekend be still coming to parliament this week?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, I think your question refers to whether people who attended the protests on the weekend should self-isolate as a result of it. The position of the AHPPC, the medical expert panel, was very clear, that we view any sort of mass gathering, whether it's a protest or large gatherings of people, is a substantial risk, still, even with the low numbers of COVID-19 that we're seeing in the community.

So, we absolutely need to take care. For those who were at the protests, our message is clear, and that is if you become unwell, like we say to all members of the Australian community, with respiratory symptoms, then get yourself tested, because that is going to be the most important thing going forward, that anyone with symptoms who attended those protests get tested, so our public health officials can be aware of an issue if it happens.

QUESTION: 

[Inaudible]… issue with politicians coming back to Parliament this week, [indistinct] just giving a general comment about anyone who attended these protests. But these people are elected officials and they're coming here to represent, but that also means that there's people coming from right across the country who are then going to fly home to potentially [indistinct] populations where they live. Are there any specific concerns about spreading coronavirus from these protests into Parliament and then across the country?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

I think we've got to remember that we don't actually know what's going to happen as a result of these protests. The principle of mass gatherings being a risk is clear, and I have just stated it, I don't need to restate that. In terms of what the effect of that mass gathering is going to be, we have to accept that they have happened, and we have to wait and see what will happen as a result of the mass gatherings. There is no current recommendation that people who attended those mass gatherings should do anything different, and in fact, do exactly the same thing, which is get tested if they become unwell.

QUESTION: 

If cases start to emerge out of these protests, could Australia be forced to— could states be forced to reintroduce some of those tougher restrictions that we had earlier in the year for COVID response?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, I think that depends entirely on how many cases emerged. I mean, it's very clear that we have excellent public health capability to respond to outbreaks, we have excellent capacity within the public health system, we have excellent capacity within our hospital system to treat people with COVID-19. So, the system is there and able to treat eventualities like outbreaks, and like I said in response to the previous question, I just think we have to wait and see what happens over the coming weeks.

QUESTION: 

Does the AHPPC have discussion about potential to be rolling back restrictions or delaying the implementations of easing restrictions as a result of these protests?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

The AHPPC has discussions about the lifting of restrictions on a weekly and sometimes daily basis as we chart our way out of COVID-19 epidemic. The discussions related today to steps 1, 2 and 3. And the pace at which states are going through the restrictions and what might occur beyond step 3 in months ahead, we did not discuss a return to more stringent restrictions as a result of the protests.

QUESTION: 

Was there any discussion in regards to how the weekends protest might impact on the states coming out of those stages 1, 2 and 3?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, it's the same answer as the questions before, as public health officials we have to wait to see the outcome on public health and potential new cases of the protests were. What has become very clear to yourselves and to Australians over the past 3 months is we can't crystal ball gaze at all. The virus dictates its own path, obviously we hope there are minimal outbreaks resulting from— minimal cases I should say, resulting from the protests, but we will wait and see what happens over the next 2 to 3 weeks.

QUESTION: 

How long until we then a see. Are we talking a 2-week timeframe, a 4-week timeframe? How long will we know what the effects were from a medical standpoint?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

It's exactly the same as lifting of restrictions, it's the same answer, the incubation of the virus is 14 days, therefore it's a minimum of 14 days. It certainly doesn't mean in 3 or 4 weeks we will be out of the necessarily out of the woods, it can take a little while, that's the same as lifting restrictions, you have to wait a minimum of 14 days.

QUESTION: 

If it's been— if 30,000 people gather in a city centre, very close together and there ends up being no outbreak, wouldn't it either cause businesses to either just disregard or very seriously question why the restrictions are still in place the way that they are and whether they should be accelerated?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

I think, the first thing to say in response to that question is that, businesses have been very patient, with the restrictions. They have obviously had a significant economic effect. That they have— that businesses have come along with the government in taking a very COVID safe approach. Whether that has an effect, we heard 1 question; would the protest calls us to increase restrictions, you have asked; would the protest cause us to lift our restrictions more quickly? Again, only time will tell and that's the best we can answer that.

QUESTION: 

Do you anticipate that moves in New Zealand to end restrictions, and things like the protest will add to peoples anticipation or frustration with the lockdown? Is it possible community sentiment might get ahead of the change in the rules?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

I think there's a couple of things to say in response to that. The first thing is, whilst we have put ourselves in an excellent position to lift restrictions, we are still only about 4 weeks or just over 4 weeks after the first restrictions were even lifted. The amazing thing about COVID-19 is there is so much going on but it seems like a week is a month, a month of the year, it can lead to the impression that things are going slowly when in fact, they are going really quite quickly.

Some states, through their very low number of cases have been able to move towards step 3 very quickly. I think what Australians are seeing, the restrictions lifting, they're seeing new opportunities available to them to go to pubs and clubs in New South Wales, albeit sitting down and having a drink, even large gatherings in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. I think people are looking forward to doing those things, they are enjoying the lifting of restrictions but I don't sense there is any frustration. I think Australians realise the situation in Australia versus New Zealand is very different.

QUESTION: 

Can you say anything about discussions today about coming out of restrictions that you mentioned earlier? Any decisions made, anything to announce from todays meeting?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

As you know, everything we discuss in terms of clear pathways needs to go to National Cabinet first but today was a general discussion. As I have said, we have only been lifting these restrictions for 4 weeks. There are many months to go in this COVID-19 epidemic. So today was a general discussion on what live after step 3 may look like.

QUESTION: 

AMA President, Tony Bartone this morning said that, anyone who was with the protest should be self-isolating. He also mentioned the potential of mass testing for these protesters. What is your response to that and who should we be listening to when there are so many voices currently speaking about Australians health?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, I'll address the last point, which is Australians should be listening to their state and chief health officers and the health expert panel to which they sit on, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. I'm aware of the AMA president's comments. They were born out of highly precautionary approaches was that it isn't something in the AHPPC has specifically discussed, the requirement to self-isolate after a protest. They would be challenges in implementing such a policy and I would simply say to protesters who may be concerned, that they simply follow what their state and territory health departments recommend. I fully endorse the AMA's president suggestion that people with symptoms get themselves tested, that is absolutely critical.

QUESTION: 

In regards to the protests, a lot of people out there are frustrated. In terms of they saw the protests on the weekend, 30,000 people there, saying why can't we go to a footy game to a stadium with 30,000 people? So what would you say to people who might be feeling that level of frustration, in terms of why that but not a game of footy or whatever the case may be?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

I do understand why that might frustrate people. I would point out perhaps we don't have protests on every Friday and Saturday night of the footy season, so there are some substantive differences to it. The return to stadium sport and spectators is something the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee is considering; it is something that we have been discussing.

So there may well be a way to do that in a safe measured way in the coming months, so I guess in principle there is a rather big difference between a single protest and a return to spectator sport in Australia. Returning to spectator sport in Australia is important for Australians to see us working towards that. Now I think we've got some, yes?

QUESTION: 

Thanks for this. I have got 2 questions, actually I'll roll them into 1 if that's all right. Would there be any less transmission of the virus occurring at these protests if the people who attended these protests started self-isolating now, rather than waiting till someone has been identified and the contacts have been traced back to them? Would there be less transmission if people self-isolate now?

And secondly, will any easing of restrictions now be put on hold essentially 2 weeks until the AHPPC finds out whether there has been transmissions at these protests?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

Okay. Thanks James. So the questions were if people who attended the protest self-isolate from this moment in time, would there be less transmission? And the second question related to was a similar question to the one previously asked which was: will this cause a delay in any lifting of restrictions?

So in response to the first question, I think the nature of the protests were different from state to state. The numbers of people were different from state to state. And in fact, what people were doing at the protests was different within a given protest. Some people were on the periphery, making an attempt to self-isolate. Some people had brought hand sanitiser, others had masks. So, it's going to be very difficult to suggest a blanket policy for everyone who are tested— attended those protests across the country or a blanket recommendation beyond saying: if you get unwell, you need to get tested.

In terms of whether restrictions will be delayed, it's the same answer as I said previously which is: we take several weeks to examine the effect of lifting restrictions anyway. And obviously, that gives us plenty of time to see whether there were any emerging cases from the protests and adjust our position if necessary accordingly. But that will obviously be a matter for the state and territory public health units, which will be monitoring this very closely.

QUESTION: 

Hello Dr Coatsworth. I just wanted to ask you about the World Health Organization announcement over the weekend. They now support members of the public wearing masks. Did the AHPPC discussed this today, and has there been any change in the position?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

So the question related to the World Health Organization's shifting position on general community mask use. And the AHPPC frequently discusses mask use, whether it's in the health care workers setting, whether it's in more broadly community healthcare or more broadly than that community mask use. So it is something that we discuss very, very frequently.

There is no current change in position of the AHPPC on community mask use in Australia. Now, the reason for that is that community mask use is likely to be beneficial in communities, in countries where the prevalence, the actual amount of COVID-19 is far higher than it is in Australia. And that might include countries like Brazil, Russia, the United States, where we know that there's a high probability of if you walk down the street in the community, you would encounter someone with COVID-19. So the value of community mask use in Australia at the moment with very low numbers of COVID-19, less than 10 a day on average for the past week, is simply not there in the view of the AHPPC to warrant a change in our position on masks. But as I said, that is something that we will constantly review and have been constantly reviewing since the start of the pandemic.

I'll take 2 more questions.

QUESTION: 

Is there any more details about New South Wales case, that is under investigation? Is it somebody who went to a protest or is that community transmission or is it just none of that's clear yet?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

That's under investigation and it'll be a matter for the New South Wales Public Health Unit. I would have thought given the protests were only a couple of days ago, it'd be very early to be showing any symptoms but more details will be available in the coming days, I'm sure.

QUESTION: 

On the— just on the protests, it was mentioned yesterday by one of your colleagues' ability of the protesters to spread the virus to go further? What kind of role yelling and shouting and things like that have on the spread of the virus?

DR NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, these things are very difficult to study in sort of experimental form. You can imagine the virus forms droplets and the louder you exhale those droplets, whether you're coughing, whether you're shouting, screaming or even singing, they can be projected further than would otherwise be done by talking. So that is sort of a statement of fact. That's what happens with these viruses. I think other than protests, I know there's a lot of friends and colleagues of mine who are more worried about choirs, to be honest, and getting back to singing. And that should obviously be done with the appropriate social distance and the appropriate attention to destiny and one person per four-meter square rule. But yes, it does project the virus further.

And that was a great way to finish. Thank you very much.

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