Date published: 
10 April 2020
Media event date: 
10 April 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Okay. Good afternoon everyone. Paul Kelly here for the daily press conference. And thanks for coming out on a public holiday.

The first thing, just an update on the numbers as of this morning. 6,152 Australians have been diagnosed with this virus, with 52 people having passed away due to the virus. We're in a much better place than we were a few weeks ago, even a week ago with the numbers of the increase on a daily basis much less than had previously been the case. So, this is really good news. We have 262 people in hospital as of this morning. Again, that is quite a decrease from earlier in the week where it was over 400. In intensive care, we have 79 people, of which 38 are on ventilators. Again, a decrease from previous days. And we're continuing to do a lot of testing. Over 334,000 tests so far.

How does this compare with the rest of the world? Well, globally now over 1.5 million people have been diagnosed with this virus in almost every country, and 93,000 have lost their lives. This is a huge pandemic. And Australia is not completely immune, but we have done so well together to this point that we are able to really consolidate on those gains now.

So, the key message for Easter is to stay at home. This is not time for us to be changing the rules in terms of social distancing and the other things we have done in society over recent weeks. It's time to consolidate those gains. And to then- of course, to consider what might happen in the future. But at this time, it's- the stay at home message is really important.

Of course, while we are staying at home and hopefully celebrating Easter in our own ways, we need to think about the people that are continuing to work- healthcare workers, of course, but I want to give a shout out to the truckers today because they're the ones that are out on our roads delivering the goods that we need, especially food, medicine, medical supplies, vaccines and the like. I know that it's been actually difficult on the trucking routes in recent weeks because of the closures of various things, including some of the truck stops. So thank you to all of those that are doing those deliveries.

And the final point I just want to make today is there has been some media around claims of a cure for this virus. I just want to reiterate that there is no specific treatment yet proven to be able to cure this virus. There are several treatments that are in development and undergoing clinical trials, and that is the appropriate place for those things to be used. There is still no vaccine. There is developments in relation to that, but we are many months off having a vaccine. So please be wary of claims that there is a cure for this virus. At the moment there is not, and in fact, to claim that there is a cure for this virus without being able to substantiate those claims is illegal in Australia. So, I'll just leave it at that.

QUESTION:

There's always been a big concern about transmission to health workers, and in the last 24 hours we've had those reports of an ICU nurse in Canberra. Can you tell us anything more you know about that case? There has been suggestion that she had some sort of contact with someone from overseas, but they didn't actually say that that person had tested positive. So, is it not possible that she has contracted this from treating a COVID patient that she was looking after, and have there been any other examples of ICU nurses or doctors in Australia that have possibly contracted the disease from patients?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, it's a very important component of our response, is to make working as a healthcare worker with cases of COVID positive people as safe as possible. There has unfortunately been some reports of transmission from patients probably to healthcare workers, or indeed in healthcare workers that are involved with such treatment. It is difficult at the beginning of such an investigation to decide where that source might have been. My understanding of that particular case is that that person's partner had returned from overseas with symptoms which were similar to COVID patients. Whether they tested positive or not, I don't have that information at the moment. But that case is still being investigated. In other places, early on, there was reports of healthcare workers in northern Sydney. The same has happened in Melbourne, and there is right now a cluster of cases in Tasmania. So, we're investigating those very closely and carefully and redoubling our efforts to make sure that personal protective equipment and other ways of dealing with this transmission of this very infectious virus is done in the best way to protect our healthcare workers.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, I wanted to ask you about the workforce numbers, there have been call out for 40,000 who have been previously registered with APRA. How is that travelling? Are you seeing an increase in the number of either retired or former people who were registered who could help out? Do you still need- how many more do you anticipate that you could need for that [indistinct]?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, it's- we're certainly anticipating for the sort of scenarios that we talked about in our modelling that was released earlier in the week. And so yes, the call outs have gone out to anyone in Australia that is a retired nurse, doctor, allied health worker. Now is the time if you were considering coming back to work, to do that. And we're working very closely with APRA about making sure that they have the contact details on their books, and we can get in touch with people directly, or at least via media and other sources, to come back, to consider it. It's not, obviously, a compulsory thing. And in terms of the numbers that have come back I know that they have been quite substantial, particularly in the in the nursing workforce, but I don't have those figures with me today.

QUESTION:

Would they likely be put into roles directly on the frontline or support roles? Are you trying to work out you could see them fitting into the healthcare system at the moment?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

I think a lot would depend on firstly how long people have been out of the workforce but particularly what are their speciality may have been before they left the workforce. So, if we were lucky to get a large number of ICU nurses coming back from retirement, or from working in other areas, or indeed recently retired anaesthetist, or other doctors like that I think that would be valuable. But it would really depend on what their speciality is.

In the meantime, we would have also introduced a number of online and other offerings for training, or retraining, or up skilling in- particularly in relation to infectious diseases, infectious disease control and intensive care.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly there's a new report from the CDC in the United States which is suggesting that the average number of people that are infected by one person having coronavirus is over five people. Is that a concerning the figure? And is that reflected in the sort of modelling I guess that Australian health authorities have been looking at.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes. So the average number of people that are infected by one person is a key component of understanding the virus and how it spreads. Different times during the epidemic there has been quite high and five would be a very disturbing number - that would be a large number and difficult to control. It has been as low as the low ones- between one and two.

That's the fundamental component of the virus itself. As one brings in certain measures, like we have here in Australia, to modify the course of the epidemic we start looking not at the underlying principle of that virus but what is the effective rate - the effective number of people being one person leading to others in the, in the course of the epidemic. And so ideally, where you want to be is below one, so less than one other person being infected after a person themselves had the infection. And once you get to that point the virus dies out or the epidemic dies out.

And so at the moment we're probably on the cusp of that in Australia. Now whether that's where we are going to be in several weeks or months time remains to be seen, but at the moment we're certainly not anywhere near five.

QUESTION:

Have you come any closer to understanding whether you can become immune to this virus or not? If we were able to get to a situation in certain regions of states across the country where the virus was able to die out, I mean that would be a huge achievement. But it doesn't seem to be clear whether or not immunity is sustained by people who've had the virus or not.

PAUL KELLY:

So yes, that would be a very important thing to know and at this stage where we're only, well I calculated that this week, 14 weeks into this virus - so only- the first cases in Australia were in mid to late January, so it's only very early. So at this stage if we were able to look at people that might have been exposed at that time, or indeed were diagnosed with the virus and see whether they are immune now, that very short term immunity still.

So it remains to be seen what happens in the longer term. There are certainly studies being done in China and there will be studies here in Australia as well looking at that immune element but at this time we can't tell. In terms of, of the virus dying out, as it were, in certain parts of Australia that would be a great achievement. But it does bring with it the challenge of course, it would mean that most of us would not have been exposed yet and so we would remain susceptible to the virus if it was to be reintroduced to that area. So these are some of the challenges we have to think about it in terms [indistinct].

QUESTION:

So we went down that path, presumably you might have to actually keep Australia's international borders closed for up to two years, or until there was a vaccine?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So the vaccine is clearly an important goal and there is there are a range of considerations that would need to go into place and we'll be advising the National Cabinet on that from the Australian Health Protection Committee. They have asked us to consider various options into the future and we will do so.

QUESTION:

So what, what are your markers then? The Prime Ministers talks about going through the way out. The National Cabinet look at the markers [indistinct]… Is it zero community transmissions and cases? And if so, how long a sustained period are you looking for before you can start considering advising government about starting to shed the restrictions?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, I think the most important issue at the moment is that we're not at that stage yet. And so, for the moment, we're really looking to continue to flatten that curve, in some parts that the curve is definitely decreasing. But I would really sort of urge caution there.

Most of the cases that we've seen so far have, and still remain related to overseas travel. And so our local epidemic is actually very early, there's only, only a couple of thousand of those 6,000 cases are actual local transmission. And so, we need to see what happens with those and to learn from other countries that are going through a much more difficult time with much larger epidemics to see what happens as they pass that peak, and see what happens from there about being guided what to do to, to get back to some sort of normality. A new normality I would suggest at least in the shorter term.

QUESTION:

Just regarding immunity, in South Korea there's been reports of potentially recovered patients who are then tested- have tested positive again later. There's about 50 that they're trying to figure out if that's actually those patients get it again. Are you aware of those reports? And is it causing concern, it seeming to suggest that you can get it again and in quite a short time?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yeah, that is concerning and we are aware of them, of course. That's 50 out of 1.5 million so, so I think we should take that as a component of what we need to deal with but not necessarily the normal for most people. But as I said we've only been in this fight against the virus for a couple of- several months now rather than years and so it's difficult to know what happens in the long term. Clearly if immunity does not last for a long time then that has implications for the vaccine. And clearly if we- if there is, for example slight changes in the virus which leads it- leads us to be able to be reinfected, that also has vaccine implications and so we'll have to take that into account.

QUESTION:

Just on- in terms of the restrictions, is it likely that the last restriction to go would be the Australia-wide border closure, given that so many of our cases were linked to these overseas cases. Would it be very much the absolute last thing we do to say: yep, international world, we're ready to take you in again.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So that clearly depends on what's happening in the rest of the world in terms of the epidemic, and of course the vaccine. If we have a vaccine which does work and does give lasting immunity and it can be rolled out across the world, not just here in Australia, then that changes everything. Certainly, border closures will be a component of what needs to happen into the future. What- how that would actually work remains to be seen. We are an island of course and that's our advantage, but we also do need to have our trade both back and forth, to continue in the society that we love. So, these are all elements that will be part of the road out, as the Prime Minister said. But it's too early to talk about that road out at the time being.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, the NRL has announced that it wants to restart its competition potentially as early as the end of May. Given the social restrictions have been put in place, is it your understanding that they would need permission from state and territory governments where they play to actually kick-start that competition again, or are they effectively a- for want of a better phrase, law unto themselves in this regard?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

I don't think they're a law unto themselves. Some of the players and coaches might think so, but they're certainly part of society and they have a part of- as we have all done, to support not only the safety for themselves but safety for all of us. To be really frank about this, we all have a place in this and if we loosen the social distancing measures at the moment it can have implications down the track which are not foreseen. I've said here before that on average, what we know about this virus if we don't have these social distancing measures, one person can lead to 400 other cases within a month. And so that is the sort of explosive epidemic we've seen in other countries. And we just cannot afford at this stage to be considering that happening.

QUESTION:

Is the NRL risking that happening by saying it's going to start playing and have groups of people congregating in change rooms, town and cities. Is the NRL risking that happening, that explosion, by saying it is going to go ahead?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Look, the other part I would say about the NRL, they're generally very fit young men and women and so they themselves are not at high risk and if they were just part of- as I understand it, the proposal is to continue to play in empty stadiums, so they would essentially be their own little microcosm. So for them it may not be a big problem, but there are other people around the teams. And Wayne Bennett I think, is in his 70s, and so he would be in a vulnerable group. Ricky Stuart here with the mighty Raiders, they would also be- he would potentially be in a vulnerable group although he's a bit younger. So, I think thinking about the team, not just the players, but those that are the support around them is important. And look, they're making their plans for the road out and I encourage them to do so and other sports, but whether May is the time it will remain to be seen. And definitely need to get some permission to do that.

QUESTION:

What about if it was on an island? There's been this island idea proposed, but I think some people suggest it was a bit of a fantasy to entertain us during the COVID-19 lockdown. I mean, would it actually be safer if they were all locked away on some sort of NRL island?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

NRL Island, sounds like a reality show. They might continue it on, not just the playing but what happens for the rest of the week. The mind boggles. But let's say that- I think if they're by themselves and they're away from the rest of society, then that is a thing. But I would just reiterate that the young men and women that play the game are not the only ones that would be there. And so, I think they really need to think carefully about their coaching staff and other supporters and then also to consider their social responsibility, even on an island.

QUESTION:

I just want to ask one last question on schools though. I mean, you do seem to think that it's not a good idea for the NRL to get up and running. And yet your medical advice for schools remains that it is safe for kids to go to school. Now, in the ACT for example we have a situation, we have 40 active cases. The ACT government has completely shut down the normal school system and they're going to go a proposal of hubs where you won't even be able to go to your normal school, you'd have to drop your kid off at an unknown location. Now, is there any medical advice that you're aware of that justifies that?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So, we've talked a lot about schools and the thing we do know about the virus is the children for some reason, and it's not absolutely known at this stage, are not affected as badly as adults and indeed don't appear to get sick much at all, even with a normal transmission that happens. So we, on public health grounds, have not advised the closure of the schools, but as we know in almost every state that has happened, and indeed it's school holidays for many states at the moment, or school stay home. So we'll be having more to say about schools in the coming weeks but for the moment our advice remains the same. One last question.

QUESTION:

Well, it might be- last question. If we're talking about the Easter weekend, the message is of course for everyone to stay home. Are you concerned at all that considering we are seeing quite promising figures about the rate of infection in Australia, the mortality rate in Australia is quite low particularly compared to other countries, the United States as an example. Are you concerned that people could become complacent, maybe not this weekend but over the next few weeks about maintaining those strict social distancing requirements?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Yes, I think that's really the clear message today, is it's not time to become complacent. It's not the time to change things. Those same messages that we've put in place and recognising how disruptive that is for so many people's lives is very, very important. Just stay the course at the moment. It is not time to take the foot off the brake. And we need to really consider how to go to the next phase very carefully and weigh up the pros and cons of all of that. And that certainly will be our task in the coming weeks. But for the time being, please stay at home. If you need to go out, keep your distance and minimise that going out to work, to exercise by yourself or in groups of two. And remember to wash your hands.

Thank you.

Contact

Departmental media enquiries

Contact for members of the media

news [at] health.gov.au (subject: Media%20enquiry%20-%20News%20item%20ID10876, body: URL - https%3A%2F%2Fwww.health.gov.au%2Fnews%2Fdeputy-chief-medical-officers-press-conference-about-covid-19-on-10-april-2020)

View contact