Deputy Chief Medical Officer press conference about COVID-19 on 9 July 2020

Read the transcript of Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth's press conference about COVID-19 on 9 July 2020.

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Today I can report that here have been 9,059 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia to date, with 182 cases newly confirmed to 12 noon today.

Going through the jurisdictions that have reported new cases: in the Australian Capital Territory, 1 new case was reported today, which was linked to the cases that were reported yesterday.

In New South Wales, there have been 13 new cases reported; 11 of those were overseas-acquired and diagnosed whilst in hotel quarantine, 1 was acquired interstate, and 1 was contact of a known case.

In Victoria, 165 new cases have been diagnosed; 30 were locally acquired, and 135 are currently under investigation.

In Western Australia, 3 new cases were diagnosed; all of them were acquired overseas and diagnosed in hotel quarantine.

Tragically, 106 people have lost their lives to COVID-19, 45 people are currently in hospital, 10 of those are in intensive care units.

I wanted to make some comments today, as both a respiratory and an infectious disease physician, on the letter that was signed by over 200 scientists to the World Health Organization about the aeroionisation of COVID-19.

We know that with any respiratory virus, when people cough, when they sneeze, particles come out of their mouth, and they are full of respiratory virus. And those particles vary in size from very, very small particles that can remain suspended in the air, aerosolised, through to larger particles that tend to drop straight to the ground, onto surfaces, or indeed onto people if they are nearby. Respiratory viruses – and COVID-19 is no exception – have their primary mode of spread through contact and droplet.

That is that the overwhelming body of evidence suggests that the primary mode of COVID-19 getting from one person to another is larger droplets. Droplets that either fall onto people's hands, and then you put your hands to your face, through– so that's direct contact with an affected individual who's very close. Or alternatively, large droplets land on surfaces, sometimes on kids' toys and things like that, we call those fomites, then people touch that surface and generally touch their mouths, and that's how the virus gets in. That is contact and droplet spread.

So, what about this aeroionisation? Is this an airborne virus? The evidence suggests the majority of transmission, the vast majority of transmission, is contact and droplet. However, there are laboratory experiments that have demonstrated that some of those tiny airborne particles can still contain COVID-19. You can find evidence of COVID-19 within those particles that are suspended in the air, that can travel for longer, that can deposit on surfaces further than 1.5 metres away. What we don't know is how relevant that is to people actually getting infected, and I'll give you an example.

For viruses that we know are transmitted via the airborne route – chickenpox, measles – if you're non-immune, and you're in the same room as a person, you are highly likely to get that virus, but even if you're 4 or 5 metres away. If I had measles, during the course of this press conference, the cameramen, who are currently about 3 or 4 metres away, if they weren't immune, they would get it. Pretty much guaranteed. You'll be all right, fellas: I'm sure you've been vaccinated.

For COVID-19, that is substantively less number of people will get COVID-19 if you're in the same room. In fact, the basic reproductive number is much, much less. So, 1 person on average affects 2.5 others. That is much more in keeping with a contact and droplet spread.

Now, our infection control expert group, who are the leading infection control practitioners, the vast majority of whom are current practitioners in our hospitals today, they're infectious disease physicians. They're infection control nurses. They're experts in this area. They constantly review the evidence and provide updates to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the AHPPC.

So, whilst we keep a watching brief on this letter that's been sent, this concept of aeroionisation, it remains the position of the AHPPC, that this is a virus that is primarily spread through contact and droplet precautions.

That is not to say that we will ignore emerging evidence. We certainly won't. Our infection control expert group constantly look at the evidence. And if evidence emerges that this is more of a problem than we suspect, we will naturally change our position. But the overwhelming weight of evidence at this point of time supports contact and droplet spread.

I'd also like to mention– to indicate today and let you know that we have had ongoing discussions at the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on the issue of community mask-wearing in areas of high transmission.

As you know, the position of the AHPPC has been and continues to be that in areas of Australia where there is no community transmission – 7 out of our 8 jurisdictions – we do not recommend mask use in the community.

However, there is a part of Australia at the moment where community transmission is on the rise; of course, that is greater Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire. In those areas, mask use – surgical mask or cloth mask use – is recommended if you find yourself in a situation where you cannot socially distance.

This means that if you have to leave your home for any of those reasons for which it is permissible, and you are likely to find yourself in a situation where you cannot maintain 1.5 metres' distance, it is advisable to be covering your face with a mask.

That, of course, does not change our advice on social distancing. It continues to be the case that the most important measure that you can do to prevent the virus from getting from 1 person to another is to maintain your distance between individuals. That is the purpose of the Stage 3 restrictions. It is the reason why they're going to work. They worked the first time; they will work the second time. And that's because we are keeping our distance from each other.

Now, I've got a lot of people on the phone today, so I'll go through our 5 journalists on the phone, and I'll just take the liberty of repeating your question, if that's okay, so people can actually understand what I'm answering. So, Claire from The Daily Telegraph.


Thanks, Dr Coatsworth. Just to [indistinct]… the border towns between New South Wales and Victoria. So far, there have been 125,000 permits for people to cross from Victoria over into New South Wales. So, given that huge volume of [indistinct], how likely is it that COVID either has or will soon cede into New South- Southern New South Wales? And also, in Albury there have been about 350 tests done in the last 2 days. For a town of 50,000 people, is that the number you'd like to see, given it's now a high-risk area? Or would you want more people coming forward?


Well, Claire, thank you. The question is: given the 125,000 permits have been issued across the border towns on New South Wales and Victorian border, how likely is it that COVID-19 will spread into Southern New South Wales? And given 350 tests in Albury, is that sufficient? So, the answer to both those questions: really, Dr Kerry Chant expressed the challenges, of course, of managing the movement of people between those border towns. It's why it's not a straightforward decision to close the border between New South Wales and Victoria.

I note today, though, that the residents of those border towns are encouraged not to move further north into New South Wales. And as for the number of permits that are issued, that of course is a matter for the New South Wales Government.

There have been cases already, of course, of COVID-19 diagnosed in Albury. There have been 2, and there was 1 on the New South Wales coast, and there are now have been 4 in the Australian Capital Territory.

So, we have had isolated cases of COVID-19 already, related to the epidemic in Melbourne. The most important thing, of course, is that people continue to come forward. New South Wales and the ACT have both introduced retrospective isolation for people who have come from Melbourne since 23 June, were required to quarantine and isolate themselves for 14 days.

And that is a direct measure to prevent further spread. We have excellent public health units in New South Wales and the ACT, as we do in Victoria. And so with those numbers being low and our ability to test, trace and isolate, that is exactly what will stop those small numbers from spreading within the community in New South Wales and Canberra. So we are certainly on top of those.

With regard to the number of tests, the most important message to any citizen in any eastern seaboard state at the moment is if you are unwell with any symptoms, get yourself tested. And we know that the New South Wales and Victorian governments in response to the cases, as and when they arise, will increase testing in certain geographic areas and Albury will be no exception.

Thank you, Claire, I will move onto Jade at the ABC.


Thank you. I just wondered if you could tell us the number of people on ventilators in hospital at the moment, and also just how the hospitalisation rates compare to the earlier stages of the pandemic?


So Jade, that number does obviously change on a day-to-day basis, it can change on an hour-to-hour basis. My understanding was that the most recent number was 6 ventilated patients. It's certainly remained less than 10 since the increased numbers of COVID-19 cases in Victoria.

What this suggests is that we have more than enough capacity at the moment in our hospital system, even in routine business, to manage the number of COVID-19 cases in Victoria. So there is sufficient intensive care capacity, even at normal bed numbers, in Victoria at the moment.

In terms of the number of ventilators, obviously, we know that the Commonwealth has procured 7,500 ventilators that are within the national medical stockpile. We know that individual jurisdictions have also got stockpiles of additional ventilators. We know that individual jurisdictions have their own plans on the actual amount of beds they can expand to if they need to surge.

But really, when we're talking about surging ICU capacity, it's not something that we talk about when there is only less than 10 patients on ventilators and 10 in ICU in intensive care down in Victoria at the moment.

So that is something that happens when your intensive care really does start to get full of patients with COVID-19, and of course have to be able to maintain business as usual, and you have to provide intensive care for those patients who don't have COVID-19 who will continue to come into intensive care despite the epidemic. So whilst we're keep a close eye on the number of patients in intensive care it is well within the system's capacity to deal with.

Tamsin from the Herald Sun?


Thanks Doctor. I was just wondering, now that Victoria is introducing temperature testing of all students as they return in coming weeks, what's the advice from AHPCC around the effectiveness of temperature testing and are there any other scenarios where you would like to see this kind of measure rolled out?


So, the question relates to the temperature checking policy that's been introduced for Victorian students coming back to school. As you know, the AHPCC has stated in the past, that the value of systematic temperature checking is limited in actually trying to find cases of COVID-19. It's not that you won't find any, it's just that not everybody with mild COVID-19 mounts a temperature, and sometimes people have temperatures for reasons other than COVID-19.

That said, though, some of this is also about focusing people's attention on the need to isolate and they are unwell. One of the advantages of temperature checking, independently of whether you are diagnosing COVID-19, is that it is a very visible reminder of the issue at hand, a very visible reminder of the need to stay at home when you are unwell.

I can tell you that even in the ACT at the school that my children go to, they have been having their temperature checked last term, when there were no community cases in the ACT.

As a parent it very much reminds you, that if your child has a sniffle, they might not have a temperature, but if there is a teacher there pointing a thermometer at their forehead, of course, it reminds you of the policy which is to keep your child at home when they are unwell. So the implementation of that policy is entirely up to the Victorian Government, but that is some of the reasons why temperature checking can be of benefit.

And I'll go to Dana McCauley. Dana, are you there? I can't quite hear Dana so I will move onto Kristen from The Canberra Times.


Hi. I just want to ask you about, pilot scheme to move international students to the ANU which has been abandoned before now. Was that on the advice of the Chief Health Officer? Was any advice sought on that? What comment would you make about that and when do you envisage it being safe for the international students to come either for a pilot more broadly?


So the question was, whether the abandonment of the ANU pilot scheme was on the advice of the AHPCC. So Kristen, the AHPCC has been looking at the hotel quarantine policy, and that is going to be– a review of that is going to be presented to National Cabinet.

We have obviously taken an interest nationally, and the AHPCC throughout government, on the number of people coming in from overseas. The main focus has been on Australians, permanent residents, and citizens who are seeking to return at this point in time to Australia and the capacity of our jurisdictions to be able to manage those numbers, which have been significant. Over 60,000 people have been in hotel quarantine, and that is a burden, on jurisdictions, on jurisdictional public health services.

And at a time when we are focusing on containing this outbreak, it is right and proper for us to consider the volumes of people coming in from overseas. So, from that, you can infer that that is not just Australian citizens but international students as well. In terms of the timing that we would be able to consider that, we very much need to see, the epidemic in Victoria be brought under control, and, again it will be the day today numbers and watching the trend in coming weeks that will enable us to answer that question.

And I'm sure people are still online, so if you do have other questions I'm happy to take some more, maybe 2 more.


[Indistinct] sorry to clarify, that what you've said there, I understand is that the committee did advise that pilot should be cancelled on the basis of the [indistinct] hotels?


No. The AHPCC didn't provide specific advice on the cancelling of–  sorry the phone is on the blink. The AHPCC did not provide specific advice on the cancelling of the ANU pilot program.


Okay. No, I think it's time, given the phones are a little bit problematic, that we wrap up the press conference today.

I would like to thank our interpreters and we will be back with an update tomorrow. Thank you.


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