Date published: 
2 March 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

FRAN KELLY:

Well as the coronavirus continues its march across the globe, the number of confirmed cases in Australia is growing. Three people, all recently returned from Iran, tested positive over the weekend and of course that comes as a 78-year-old man became the first Australian to die from the virus yesterday morning. On Saturday the Government announced it was extending its travel ban on arrivals from China to include arrivals from Iran.

[Excerpt]

PETER DUTTON:

I think if you look at the underreporting, or the lack of reporting, coming out of Iran to start with I think indicated that there was a real concern as to whether they had a handle on the numbers. And I think even the numbers that we're talking about that are relative to South Korea or elsewhere at the moment potentially are well underestimated and, obviously, South Korea has a more advanced health system.

[End of excerpt]

FRAN KELLY:

That's Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, speaking on Insiders yesterday.

Well, Professor Paul Kelly is Australia's Deputy Chief Medical Officer. Paul, welcome back to RN Breakfast.

PAUL KELLY:

Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

Australians woke to the news yesterday of the first death in this country from coronavirus, a 78-year-old man who had been a passenger on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Do you fear more deaths from this virus for Australia?

PAUL KELLY:

Well firstly, my condolences to the family of the man in Perth that has unfortunately passed away, so that's very sad news. But what we're seeing around the, around the world, Fran, as your listeners know, is the rapid increase in the number of cases and the number of countries and regions affected – so over 88,000 now and over 3000 deaths. So as the numbers rise the deaths also rise. Although we must remember that over 80 per cent of people that get this infection it's relatively mild.

FRAN KELLY:

And Paul just on that, because I get asked this question a lot and you're the expert, in terms of the death rate it's higher than the flu, but for most people who get it is it worse than the flu? Is the same as the flu?

PAUL KELLY:

Very similar to the flu it seems, Fran. A similar start, people- so a couple of differences with the flu, it takes a little bit longer to get sick after you've been exposed, it seems. So flu is usually just a very few days. For this one, it can be up to a week or even longer hence the 14-day quarantine that we've been using, because it can be even that long. But once it does start it can be very similar to the flu – just feeling achy, maybe a little bit of a temperature, maybe a bit of a sore throat, but then rapidly going to cough and sometimes shortness of breath, and that's the main symptom which can lead to more serious illness – particularly in people that have other illnesses or the elderly.

FRAN KELLY:

How- I'm going to come back to this if you have those symptoms what you do, but how many confirmed cases do we have in Australia now? Because the numbers in different sources are all over the place, really.

PAUL KELLY:

So, it's 29. You'd mentioned the ones- the new ones over the weekend - three from Iran, or recently come back from Iran and that was one of the reasons we took that action on the weekend that you had Minister Dutton speaking to just at the intro, and the others were that we had the first 15 from Wuhan directly, then there's the Diamond Princess group of which there's 10, there was another new one over the weekend and then these four. So, that's the 29.

FRAN KELLY:

And did all of these individuals – the latest ones – contract the disease while they were in Iran? While they were overseas?

PAUL KELLY:

So one, yes, that's our theory at the moment and certainly they've all arrived within the time period where that would be possible. And for one of the cases, the one in Queensland, she became sick several days after coming back from Iran, and did exactly what she needed to do. And I really stress that this is really important for people that do get sick is if they think they've got this problem is to self-isolate – to go home as this woman did. She was at work, she became sick, she immediately went home and arranged for medical care and that's exactly the thing to do to decrease the spread in the community.

FRAN KELLY:

In terms of whether this can be contained, we know more cases are expected. You've told us that – you and the Chief Medical Officer a number of times, but what will be the tipping point? Are you expecting human-to-human community spread of this? Are we expecting a community outbreak, I suppose?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, as many of us have said including Minister Hunt recently, Australia is not immune to this problem. We have had cases, so, so far it's been very contained, it was just those ones from Wuhan that we- the people from Wuhan that we found very quickly and they were put into quarantine, and then the Diamond Princess group of course – they'll be heading home hopefully this week with their 14 days completed.

These cases over the weekend from Iran were in the community, and so we're now redoubling our efforts to find the contacts and to make sure that they can be tested if they're sick, or at least warned about that sickness so that they can take this sort of action I described from Queensland.

We're into that next phase I think really, Fran, so we've been trying to contain it beyond our borders, we've been trying to contain it when we know Of certain groups specifically. We just need to be on the lookout now.

FRAN KELLY:

And what does being on the lookout mean? Does it mean that we should urge, I think, as the Queensland Health Minister has urged, that if you're coming home from overseas basically anywhere in the past fortnight and you've become sick, seek a medical- seek immediate medical advice? Is that the advice you would give?

PAUL KELLY:

That's the advice we are giving now, Fran, and from today we'll be giving that advice at the airports for return travellers.

FRAN KELLY:

So from any country in the world? not just Iran, or South Korea, or China- they're not coming from China, but Italy?

PAUL KELLY:

Yes. So not coming from China, of course there are places that we know that do have larger outbreaks but we now have over 67 countries or regions around the world that are affected and so I think it's time for us to consider that travel as being an issue. At the moment it's China, Iran, South Korea, Japan and some other countries…

FRAN KELLY:

Italy.

PAUL KELLY:

…we're particularly looking at Italy, of course. And I'd say that we did increase the travel warnings for people leaving Australia going to northern Italy last night, to those 11 towns that have been particularly affected in Lombardy and Veneto, so that's another action we've taken over the weekend. So I think it's just really-

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] People are obviously – sorry, you go.

PAUL KELLY:

No, no, you go ahead. That's fine.

FRAN KELLY:

People are obviously concerned, are concerned about the capacity to contain it. You mentioned the people coming from Iran who were confirmed as positive for the virus on the weekend, one of those was a beautician recently back from Iran. Queensland Health authorities say they've got no immediate concerns for the health of up to 40 people who had contact with that person. Why? Why don't they have concerns? How can you confirm that all these people would be in the clear?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, they're being contacted, the ones that…

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] But we haven't found all those, have we?

PAUL KELLY:

…that have information. No, we haven't found all of them but anyway who paid with a credit card or so forth, we have those details. But people come in very- for very short periods into beauticians and so, you know, you have to realise that this- whilst this is an infectious disease it's really the closeness that you have to a person and also the period of time that you have with that person, and the fact that the person is symptomatic in particular. So she's saying that she did becomes symptomatic and then, and then went straight home. So whilst it's possible to spread the virus before symptoms arrive we don't believe that that's a very strong component of it.

PAUL KELLY:

So we'll- the Queensland authorities are certainly doing their best to find everybody and get that message out there. So the Queensland Chief Health Officer, I speak to her every day, you know, did all that on Saturday. And so- and that's the way the other- the other cases on the weekend there will also be that contact tracing, as we call it – trying to find as many people as possible, give the warning and ask them to watch out for symptoms and to get tested if they if they do develop symptoms.

FRAN KELLY: It's 14 past eight on Breakfast. Our guest is Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly. A couple of issues – the travel ban, Health Minister Greg Hunt has asked you and other medical officers to consider whether the travel advice for Italy is appropriate given the high number of cases in Italy. How do you make a judgment like that? And are you inclined to advise the Government to extend the travel ban?

PAUL KELLY:

So we did, as the Minister mentioned yesterday, we did meet yesterday and we did discuss it and so that resulted in our advice to Government and it's been a remarkably close and very good relationship between firstly, the medical experts in Australia and Government. They take our advice, they asked for frank and fearless advice – I know that's a bit of a cliché, but it's true.

FRAN KELLY:

So what was your frank and fearless advice in terms of Italy?

PAUL KELLY:

So in terms of Italy, we advised…

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] And South Korea perhaps?

PAUL KELLY:

Yeah. So both South Korea- the regions where- where the South Korean outbreak is most prominent, and that the South Korean and Italian outbreaks are very similar - they're quite isolated to a particular geographic region, it's not the whole country at the moment. And so for those areas, the travel advice on Smart Traveller has been upgraded at the moment.

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] But what about coming in, coming in from Italy? You can't tell where they're coming in [indistinct] if they've been in the north or?

PAUL KELLY:

No. And that's the challenge really because there is a lot of people that come in from Italy, very few of them – I would imagine no one would be going to those particular towns. So putting in a travel ban would be a major step but we're not ruling in or out anything. We meet every day as health experts and we look at the evidence then we provide the advice to Government and up to now they've taken that advice exactly as we've given it.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. But there are no plans to extend the travel bans at the moment? It's not your advice?

PAUL KELLY:

Not at the moment.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay.

PAUL KELLY:

But as I say, we're meeting every day and we'll review as things progress.

FRAN KELLY:

There are a lot of questions coming in from listeners. Obviously, as I said, people are worried about this but firstly, the capacity of our hospitals to cope. The Health Minister says that the, you know, we're on pandemic footing so the hospitals are, you know, putting in plan their surge capacity plans. But emergency department's doctors are repeatedly warning they're at capacity every day. So what more can hospitals do? What are you expecting hospitals to do?

PAUL KELLY:

So we've asked the states and territories who run hospitals to give us their information exactly about that. We're meeting today with the Australia-New Zealand Intensive Care Society about- they have a very close and strong network right around Australia to see what their plans are and that kind of severe end of the spectrum.

And yes, so they're preparing in all sorts of ways but, in general terms, looking at intensive care, looking at diversion from- from the emergency department. So for example, in Queensland over the weekend they set up a particular clinic to have a look at and to give advice to contacts of that new case and that sort of thing will happen as required. It just demonstrates the enormous flexibility that we have in our system right across Australia.

FRAN KELLY:

And what about preparation in terms of, you know, access to preventative measures? Australian shops and chemists seem to be out of hand sanitiser, there are out of masks. Someone's writing please ask whether Australia has enough test kits and should testing be free and conducted at home to reduce infection risks.

PAUL KELLY:

So in terms- in terms of masks, yes there is- there is a global issue with mask. Most masks are made, as indeed most things, many things in Australia are made in China and there's no secret that China has slowed down as they cope with this epidemic. So masks, masks are a thing, we're looking at ways that we can increase the supply there actively at the moment. Test kits - that's- at the moment we have plenty of supply of test kits, there's no need to be concerned about that. Hand sanitiser – yes, I've heard those reports as well but there are alternatives, strangely enough known as soap, soap and water is an old fashioned, a lot of this stuff is pretty old fashioned, Fran, but it works and so we can do that.

Can I just go back to the travel…

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] Sure. Please.

PAUL KELLY:

…when I mentioned earlier. So we're not advising all travellers coming back from anywhere at the moment but there is there is a list on our website and all travellers will be given the information about the virus from today and then asked to go to the website as to whether the country they've been travelling in is on the list. We found that…

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] Oh I see. So that's slightly different to the advice coming out of Queensland, which is if you've been anywhere and you feel sick report it?

PAUL KELLY:

Well that is right but just in terms of the official advice at the airport, I just wanted to make that clear.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay.

PAUL KELLY:

We'll be looking at those countries every day and that's why we've used a website address so that we can have that flexibility as a lot of people have come into our airports every day and seaports indeed. So keeping that- on top of that is a challenge but it's one we have taken on.

FRAN KELLY:

One final question, I know I've taken up too much of your time now. But just on this claim that was featured in the Australian media over the weekend, the suggestion that some in the Australian Government don't trust the World Health Organization in the sense that they believe it's been slow to declare a global pandemic because it's under such intense pressure from China. Do you agree with that? Is that- is that what we fear is happening?

PAUL KELLY:

China is a very important member of the international community and including the World Health Organization and its really important that we- we keep talking to China and China keeps talking to us - they're the ones that know way more about-

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] But is China putting undue pressure on the WHO to not declare a pandemic?

PAUL KELLY:

I- look, I can't comment on that, Fran. I haven't been part of those conversations. But really, whether it's a pandemic or not, the fact is there's 88,000 cases in 67 countries or regions in the world – it's a big thing whether it's got a p in front of the epidemic, that doesn't really matter.

FRAN KELLY:

Paul Kelly, thank you so much for joining us and good luck with the task ahead.

PAUL KELLY:

You're welcome, Fran. Nice to talk to you.

FRAN KELLY:

Such an important and daunting one. Paul Kelly. Professor Paul Kelly is the Deputy Chief Medical Officer.

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