Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Good afternoon everyone Paul Kelly, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer here, wanting to talk to you about the latest issues in relation to COVID-19 here in Australia and a little internationally.

So the international issues with COVID continue to be of concern, now well over 4 million cases throughout the world, particularly in the US and in Europe. Large rises in recent days in Russia and in Brazil. So, there are two places of concern. Some countries now, like Australia, are starting to open up again and to remove their lockdown restrictions, but they are still looking carefully and closely at the increasing numbers of cases they are seeing, in the hundreds or over a thousand per day, compared with here in Australia.

So here in Australia, still under 7,000 cases, unfortunately 1 more death, so 98 deaths now. So the actual figure for Australia, 6,975. Of those, almost all of the people that have had the disease have now recovered. And so we estimate that around 700 people in Australia are currently sick with COVID-19. Only 13 new cases in the last 24 hours earlier. In hospital, 50, in intensive care unit, undergoing care, 17, and on ventilators, 14. So continuing to decrease in those numbers which is very encouraging.

So we will continue to look carefully and closely at the number of new cases and particularly if any clusters of cases occur, and to make sure that we are keeping those numbers very low, flattening that curve, continuing into the future as we start to open up around Australia.

In terms of other matters that are related, we are coming into winter, now is the time to get your flu vaccine, I can say we now have 15,967,000 doses of flu vaccine have been made available here in Australia, including over 9 million of them in the Government National Immunisation Program for those who are more vulnerable to severe influenza. And I can say that at this stage, compared with last year, 2 times the number of people have had their flu vaccine compared with 2019, which means over 6 million people in Australia have had their flu vaccine and well done to those who have had that and I would encourage people, particularly people in vulnerable groups to go out and get their flu vaccine as soon as you can. They're are available through GPs, pharmacies and other methods and now is the time to consider that, if you haven't already done so.

The final thing I would like to quickly talk about before I take questions, is the matter of a new syndrome which is known as PIMS-TS, it stands for paediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome, temporarily associated with SARS-Cov-2. So much easier to say PIMS-TS This is a disease which appears to be an autoimmune disease. It's related and quite similar to a disease known as Kawasaki disease, this is something that is a very rare event in children, it's been around since 1967, first described in Japan. We get around about 200 to 300 cases here in Australia. This PIMS-TS though seems to be a new phenomenon. It has been described now in the US and the UK and in some other countries where there have been large numbers of COVID-19 cases that have been diagnosed, including in children. So a very different situation to here in Australia, where we are less than 7,000, in the US, for example well over 1 million cases of COVID-19.

So when a disease is more common, the rarer potential effects of those diseases are more likely to be seen, and so it is our belief that is the case with this particular disease. It's not necessarily or definitely associated with COVID-19 at the moment but it certainly is suggestive that that is the case. And we here in Australia have some of the world experts in Kawasaki disease, and there is a group that has a register and is collecting information on Kawasaki disease which was formed in January last year. I met with that group a couple of nights ago, and they will continue to be closely associated with the AHPPC and through us to the National Cabinet to provide information about disease. So far there has been no known increase in Kawasaki disease in Australia and no known cases of the new syndrome, PIMS-TS.

So I will leave it there and ask for questions. Thank you.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, where is the tracing app up to? Can all states and territories now access that data if a positive case comes through?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes. So I can announce that the app is now fully functional, we have over 5.6 million people in Australia have downloaded the app and it is ready to go. All of the states and territories have now signed up to be able to use the app, they have provided information about who in their public health units will be using it. We are now absolutely certain that the privacy and data security issues, that's all taken care of, in terms of states and territories agreeing to our proposals. And all states and territories have now been trained to use the app and to know what information they are going to get and how that can be used for their contact tracing purposes. So we will look forward to seeing how that helps our disease detectives do their work in the coming days.

QUESTION:

Professor, just to confirm, all states can get data?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes. So all states have now signed up and so that's ready to go.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, yesterday Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, sought advice from yourself after he had a coughing fit in the House of Representatives, he was then advised that the symptoms of a cough and dry mouth with that he should get a COVID-19 test. To Australians watching at home who might have seen that coughing fit and think that it is quite normal and not warranting of a test, should they themselves seek out a test if they have similar symptoms, is that how low, I guess, the bar is for getting a COVID-19 test at the moment?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY

Absolutely. We really encourage all Australians that have symptoms that are— could be COVID-19 at this point to seek medical advice and to take that medical advice. And to all doctors out there, I would like to say please continue doing a test for COVID. We really rely on that finding of COVID cases at the moment, and so people with cough and shortness of breath, particularly if that's associated with fever, particularly if that person has in any way had a possibility of being in close contact with a case of COVID-19. These are the real risk factors and we need to continue that testing effort in the coming weeks, and I'm very glad to hear that the Treasurer ended up with a negative test, and that was very reassuring for all of us.

QUESTION:

Have state and territory officials done any contact tracing yet with that data?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Not that I know of, but I'm looking forward to hearing from my colleagues how useful it is, and I am sure it will be useful. And really, crucially, it's the utility of the app, how many more people are found using the app compared with the normal manual process, which can be very time-consuming, having done it many times myself. It does take time, and it can sometimes be frustrating in getting that information.

So, if I was doing that job now, I would be really looking forward to seeing how that contact tracing app could give that information very quickly and allow us to kickstart, if you like, the contact tracing exercise. And that's how we're going to keep on top of this virus going forward in Australia.

If we can find people quickly, make sure that firstly they're not sick — if they are, to deal with that component and offer assistance. But more particularly from a public health point of view, stop that onward infection, those so-called chains of transmission that may occur. And they can become very large.

One person, if there's no control of that, can lead to 400 cases in a month. So, just the mathematics of how the virus can transmit from person to person. So, just shows, just finding one case is going to make a big difference. And if the app can do that, then that's really going to be of help, and, again, I encourage people to really consider downloading the app and keeping it switched on. If you want to do so, it's completely voluntary, but it's going to help.

QUESTION: 

Professor Kelly, [inaudible]… figures from around the world. You mentioned Russia and Brazil and other countries. How does the AHPPC go about creating [indistinct] for National Cabinet in their discussions, what kind of metrics do you look at when you are considering things like international borders, travel bubbles?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY: 

So, when we think about the three ways that we have been able to control the COVID-19 issue here in Australia, and I think, you know, really, we are probably the top three countries in the world in terms of our control; I would say us, New Zealand, and probably Taiwan would be the third one. And the crucial component of that has been the control at the borders. So that early decision to close the border to travellers from China, and then to expand that to include other countries with high risk, and eventually all countries, indeed, created a bubble for Australia, as New Zealand has done and as Taiwan has done. And that's been really important. So, our advice back to National Cabinet will be very consistent, based on the rest of the world and their experience. But we really would be looking to continue with that control element for quite some time.

The other controls, of course, are the social distancing measures, which we're starting to lift slowly and steadily, and our case finding quarantine and so forth. But for the moment the borders are going to remain shut.

QUESTION: 

Professor, sorry, just following up on the same question, what kind of things would need to happen around the globe to consider easing those restrictions? Would it need to be a vaccine, would it need to be— I don't know, you're the expert.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY: 

Thank you. So, yes, obviously a vaccine would be very welcome for all sorts of reasons, including ability to open the borders, more importantly to bring the pandemic under control and, in many countries in the world, it's remaining a huge issue in terms of illness and death, and probably in the poorer— more poorly resourced countries of the world, sub-Saharan Africa, for example, some other countries that are not as blessed as we are with our very good health system and ability to count cases, some of these things remain a bit of a mystery as to what's actually happening, but I can imagine it's quite severe. So, a vaccine would help. It needs to be available to all vulnerable people and in all countries to really bring this under control.

We look very carefully and have very good links into the international community through the World Health Organization and our own bilateral diplomatic channels and so we have a lot of information in talking at various levels, including myself, to international colleagues to share experiences and thoughts about this virus and how to control it, and including what the situation is in those other countries. So, we know what's happening in the international situation. Without a vaccine, though, I think, for many countries it's going to remain a much more difficult situation than we have in Australia and New Zealand and Taiwan, and some other parts of the Pacific for quite some time.

You did ask about the potential for an Australia-New Zealand bubble, so that's certainly a potential. I know the 2 prime ministers on the two sides of the Tasman have discussed this in recent weeks and that certainly seems feasible, potentially, in coming months. But if you look at our 3-step plan that was talked about in the National Cabinet on Friday, those issues around the border are only step 3. So, we're still a little from that.

QUESTION:

Professor, it was confirmed today a passenger off the Ruby Princess had passed away. That ship docked nearly 2 months ago, that's an extensive period of time to be battling the disease. Is that outside the normal in terms of the overseas experience, that someone have coronavirus for 2 months and then pass away?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, I don't know the details of that particular case and I wouldn't want to discuss them in any case for privacy reasons, but, yes, the course of the illness is usually much shorter than 2 months, but we have found, for those that are particularly vulnerable and have the more severe end of the spectrum of the disease, they can be in hospital for quite some time. And those that end up in intensive care and on ventilation can be several weeks at least. But, as I say, I don't know the actual details of that particular case. Yeah, I'll leave it there.

QUESTION: 

On the social distancing, the easing of those measures, I know the AHPPC comes to a consensus on their recommendations, but it has been revealed that there are concerns within the group about a lack of compliance, particularly shopping centres and those other crowded areas. What might be given consideration in terms of— would we have to have stricter rules on numbers entering buildings or are you relying on individuals to simply stand 1.5 metres away from each other?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So it's certainly something that has come to light as more retail has opened over recent days that, of course, many of our shops are in large shopping centres and it's something we need to look at, and we are actively working together with Nev Power and his group in the national committee and through them into the owners of the large shopping centres just to consider what we could do to assist with those of— the transit through shopping centres into retail shops. So, the shops themselves are very well prepared and are taking our messages very, very well, and, indeed, people inside shops are taking the messages of social distancing, hygiene, cleaning practices, and so forth.

The shopping centres themselves, we've always seen as a kind of transit zone into the shops and so, at less risk than a lot of people gathering together. Food courts, for example, remain closed in the shopping centre is for that reason. But we recognise that we do need to do more work with the shopping centre owners, perhaps in terms of limiting the numbers within the centre itself for the whole period of time— over a period of time or, indeed, people giving reminders about social distancing whilst they're actually at the bottom of the escalator and so forth so that that can be improved.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] colleague, the Deputy CMO [indistinct] to mental health. How do you see that role working in with you and the other CMO team and the rest of the department?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY: 

Yeah. So we're certainly a team now, the team of deputy chief medical officers. And it's been a real privilege for me in this role to be working with such esteemed colleagues, and all of us will welcome Dr Vine when she joins us, bringing, as the others have, a different perspective.

So, that mental health issue is an important one. It always has been important. And we know one of the key elements of mental health is people being connected to each other and, unfortunately, a side effect of a lot of this physical or social distancing measures that have come into play have disconnected people. And so, it's not surprising that mental health is arising as a unintended consequence of our control. So, we welcome Dr Vine for that.

And of the rest of us, Professor Kidd is a world-renowned academic and GP and Dr Coatsworth is an infectious disease physician and a clinical doctor in the hospital sector. I bring public health expertise and Alison, as the Chief Nurse, brings her background, which is different again, and Brendan the same. So it's quite a team now. And Jenny Firman as well, who's another member of the group, who's a GP and long-term public health specialist as well. So, we've got a great team going.

QUESTION: 

[Indistinct] mental health— just to follow up, the Mental Health Deputy CMO, what do you see being top priority for her once she starts in the role?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY: 

Yeah. Well, certainly looking at what we can do to make sure we're picking up on mental health issues and providing the information and ways forward for people that are having those difficulties. I think that's a really crucial component of that, and making sure that we know what's going on and that we're offering that information and support where it's required.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, with tests at the moment, we're seeing more and more people [inaudible]… Australia now, what kind of— do you have any indication of how long the average test is taking to be returned to the person? And if someone has returned a positive test, are they getting that news faster than someone who's negative or? What's happening with the tests?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes. So you're right. It's 909,000 now, so it's certainly a large number of the PCR tests. So they are quite rapid. And in general, it's the same day or the following day, sometimes, depending on weekends and so forth, it can be a little longer. In terms of positives more are coming back before negatives, I'm not sure really. It may vary from state to state and, certainly, I'm familiar with what happens here in the ACT and it is quite quick.

QUESTION:

Professor, there's been some contention developing between the states over border closures. South Australia refusing to grant an exemption to their AFL teams on the 14-day quarantine. Earlier in the week, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said that she's not willing to let people in New South Wales into Queensland, both pointing to the higher rates of the virus in Victoria and New South Wales.

In your medical professional opinion, is the rate in Victoria and New South Wales still too high, too much of a risk given we are now down to single digit or even no daily cases?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY: 

Well, we certainly have very few cases each day — only 13 in the last 24 hours — and many of those have been associated with clusters of cases we already know about. Some of those have also been in returned travellers. So, in terms of community transmission in any of the states, it's very, very low.

Queensland will have to make its own decision, and the Premier is the premier of the state and so it's her responsibility to make those decisions and I'm not going to second guess how she makes those decisions. But I know that Dr Jeanette Young, a very close and esteemed colleague of ours, a member of the AHPPC, is in very frequent conversation with her premier. And I'm sure where they get to the point where they feel it's safe to do so, they will reconsider the border controls. But you're right. At the moment, they're keeping those in place.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible question]

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yeah, so on testing we've mainly relied up to this point on the real time PCR testing. That's the gold standard for diagnosis. And so the serology tests are not of any value for diagnosis. The reason is because it takes a week or sometimes 2 weeks for those antibodies to be produced in the body, and to be able to be detected by the test. So that's not to say they're useless, they can have some use further down the track. They're just not useful for diagnosis of an acute case. But you know, those— we purchased those antibody tests at a particular point in time when testing kits were at an extremely low number in Australia and difficult to find elsewhere in the world, and so we looked at various alternatives. So, at the moment they're not going to be used for diagnosis but they could be useful and they will be used in other ways in the future.

QUESTION: 

Just a data question. You mentioned we have 700 active cases of COVID-19 nationally. Do we have the data for how many people are currently self-isolating in quarantine for that specific 2-week period, rather than generally social distancing?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY: 

So, I don't have that specifically. I do know that we're still getting around about 6,000 people per week coming from overseas. And so all of those are in 14 days quarantine, of course. Luckily not all of those are developing COVID-19, clearly. But some of them are, so how many of that 6,000 or so who are in 14 days quarantine have developed the disease? At the moment I'm not sure. There have been a number of them over time, but the active ones, I don't have that information.

One last question. Thanks.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible question]

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes, so the antibody kits we have have been cleared by the Therapeutic Goods Administration as being accurate and showing what they purport to show. So, they are quite specific and quite sensitive to that. So, if— the issue mainly is that time lag. So, if I've had the disease and 2 weeks later I'd use that test, it's highly likely that that would be a correct, a true positive in that case. And so that could be used for people that were interested in knowing whether that thing that they had a couple of weeks ago was COVID-19. In terms of the— what you're referring to there is serological surveys to look at the population level about how many cases— how many people may have been infected during this period. You could use those point of care tests but more likely we'll use a higher throughput one in the laboratory. It's just— it can be done more quickly, because for those sort of surveys you do need several thousands to be done in a way that's representative of the population to give the answer that you're looking for. So those point of care tests, probably not that great and not all that useful for that just because they're one off, a little bit slow and so on. But they will have their use.

Okay. Thank you very much.

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