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

NICK COATSWORTH:

Good afternoon everybody. Welcome to today’s update. I’d like to first acknowledge on this Easter Saturday all of our essential workers who are working today. Both in our hospital and healthcare settings and also around Australia particularly difficult time to be working away from friends and family. And also acknowledging all Australians who are really doing exactly what we’ve asked of them at this Easter break.

So I can report to you today that the total number of cases is 6,290 and tragically we’ve had 56 deaths from coronavirus in Australia. The total number of tests is 340,000 that has been performed. Still one of the highest testing regiments in the world. At this point in time we have 231 Australians in hospitals and 75 of those patients are in intensive are in units with just under 40 requiring ventilators for support for their breathing. The total global total is 1.7 million and there have been 101,000 deaths.

I’d like to make two specific points today in relation to two of the initiatives that the Australian Government have put in place to protect Australians during this difficult time. The first one, as you’re aware, is our reform of Medicare to expand Telehealth. Telehealth to date has had over 3 million consultations, with 2.4 million patients. It is important for two reasons. The first one is, that it means that doctors and patients have a way to interact that is obviously not face-to-face. But more importantly, it means that those with chronic diseases in our community who require interaction with their general practitioner are able to do so.

Secondly, I also want to mention our mental health services and although there have been a number of announcements by the Minister in the past weeks. In particular, the most recent, the coronavirus mental health wellbeing support service which has been- we are supporting through our colleagues at Beyond Blue- and I would direct Australians who are in need of support at this time to the website, www.coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au.

Just before I take questions I want to make a particular statement about how difficult this has been for Australians, in particular during this difficult time over the Easter break. We have asked you to change the way we live as Australians essentially overnight. And essentially overnight, we've come together as Australians and done just that. And it's because of that reason that we can continue to give you, for several days now and including today, good news about the number of cases that are occurring. But we need to sustain those gains. We need to keep those number of cases low. We need to have that opportunity now to chart our way through and out the other side of this COVID-19 epidemic. With that in mind, I can take some questions.

QUESTION: 

First if you would, you talk about the very good numbers of COVID cases in terms of the whole population. I understand healthcare workers’ infections in the state of Victoria have doubled in roughly the last week. Isn't that evidence that we are not doing enough to protect healthcare workers in this crisis? And how concerned are you about that trend?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, we are concerned about every single case of COVID-19 and every single case needs to be investigated thoroughly. But in particular, those amongst healthcare workers need to be thoroughly investigated. We need to understand precisely how the healthcare worker acquired that infection. We need to know exact circumstances and I know that state and territory public health units, particularly those in Victoria and New South Wales, are looking very closely at healthcare worker infections in those States. We discussed healthcare worker infections today at the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee and we are making every effort we can to understand how those infections were transmitted, including using molecular techniques that can tell us exactly which patient the virus came from and who they were transmitted to.

QUESTION:

Do you believe that a lack of masks might play into this in some way? I know the government has announced increased efforts to get masks to healthcare workers, is it a factor or is it nothing to do with the problem?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I don't think a lack of masks or PPE is anything to do with current situations in Victoria and New South Wales. As we said, the national medical stockpile has been releasing millions of masks, not only surgical masks but and N95 masks for airborne protection. The number of masks within the Australian community and healthcare community at the moment is sufficient and we are supplying them in very large quantities to the states and territories. Including over 11 million that have come in during the past week. So, no I don't that is a factor.

QUESTION:

Dr Coastsworth, in terms of talking about sustaining the gains and keeping people at home. Department stores like IKEA and Bunnings are still open. Is that sending mixed messages? Is IKEA an essential service right now?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I don’t think it is sending mixed messages. I think to keep Australia at an appropriate level of social distancing, we do need some things in our community running. Whether you're talking about IKEA or whether you’re talking about Bunnings, people still need to furnish their homes, do their repairs, they still need to call tradespeople around and so on and so on and so forth. So that sort of thing needs to continue and we do know that the local managers of those stores and Australia wide are actually putting in social distancing restrictions within the stores themselves. I was at Bunnings the other day and was very clear where I had to stand in order to maintain distance. I think you can do both of those things and I would like to thank the Australians who are going to the stores for maintaining the distance in the stores themselves and putting in those rules.

QUESTION:

Around 100 Australians have been evacuated from the Greg Mortimer cruise ship in Uruguay. What are the medical concerns- they’re preparing to be brought back to Australia, to Melbourne? What are the medical concerns about bringing back travellers from somewhere where there has been an outbreak of the illness?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, they're obviously medical concerns about doing that. Which is why this entire operation has been meticulously planned, led by the cruise ship operator but with the support of the Department of Health, Department of Foreign Affairs, Australian Border Force, Victorian government. This is a very important thing that we have to get right but equally, we have to bring this Australians back, particularly when our understanding is that over 70 per cent of the just over 100 Australians who are coming back, had tested positive to coronavirus. So I am aware of the detailed plans to meet that aircraft when it arrives tomorrow morning. Make sure that all of the passengers get a thorough medical assessment at air side and then depending on that medical assessment, either go to hospital and the hospitals are prepared for that. Or go into a hotel quarantine.

QUESTION:

Doctor, over Easter, we’ve seen people largely staying at home from regional and rural towns for the holidays, which is good, I guess. But given the older demographic that is concentrated in some of those regional areas, is there any further work being done or any concerns that you have about the need for continued lockdowns out of those towns given the older demographics concentrated there? Also coupled with potential single points of community transmission, like near one petrol bowser in town, you know one supermarket checkout, that sort of thing?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well I think the first thing to say, is that the lack of movement towards rural and regional towns at the moment is another fantastic example of how Australians are really listening to what we are asking of them. The second part of your question, the specific vulnerability of rural and regional towns based on the age of their population is a very real issue. And so, we are aware precisely of where our intensive care units are nearby. Supplying support to hospitals, supplying support to the Royal Flying Doctor service, to make sure that if there are cases, they can either be treated at those hospitals or evacuated to one of the major centres. So with regard to the points about a single petrol bowser or supermarket. I think the key is that they would be unusual roots of transmission and that provided people are within those towns are observing exactly what we are asking of them, they should not be a major issue.

QUESTION: 

Doctor, I understand the NRL now has written authority from the New South Wales government to resume its training and its competition. Are you fully comfortable with the New South Wales government's giving the NRL that authority?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well as you pointed out, the authority is a state matter. I think at the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee level; we have to be- have an approach that covers all codes. And I think at this point in time it is that we don't have training and we don't have matches and we keep social distancing. Which is the object of not having those sporting events. We do understand though, of course, that sport is a major part of the Australian psyche. It will be one of the- as we see the curve flattening, it is logical that it is coming up as one of the first things that we need to address.

QUESTION:

But as you worry- as you hold the position that there should not be sporting training and competition, that’s got to worry you doesn't it? That position from the New South Wales Government.

NICK COATSWORTH:

I might leave that to the New South Wales government to discuss more fully with you.

QUESTION:

Would you support the resumption of the AFL at the same time?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, we're not looking at what is going to happen in that amount of time I'm afraid. As we’ve said constantly, this is a day by day, week by week matter.

QUESTION:

Doesn't that's send the opposite message to that though, that the New South Wales government will commit to the resumption of training and the competition, right at the time you're saying that the public we’ve got to keep going, we can’t open up yet?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I will have to leave that with the discussion with the New South Wales government.

QUESTION:

Pathologists have reported some 40 per cent drop in routine testing. What is your message to Australians about still being able to go and get that routine testing and how important is that at this time?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I think at a broad level; you don't want other underlying health conditions to get worse because people are afraid of COVID-19. This is an absolutely critical message and I will say to Australians that because they have done so well in flattening this curve, the chance of you actually encountering someone with COVID-19 when you get your pathology test is actually extraordinarily low. If you want to get a pathology test, if you want to get an influenza vaccine, if you want to do something where you face to face contact has to be there, then by all means go and do it. Just follow exactly what we have been saying. If you have got a cold, don't do it on that day. If you need to discuss things with your doctor, get in touch with them via telehealth first.

QUESTION:

Is that more critical for people to do at those chronic underlying conditions?

NICK COATSWORTH:

It's absolutely critical. We don't want people to be missing out on routine blood tests, that they would use to check their kidney functions or diabetes or any of a number of healthcare conditions. It is absolutely critical.

QUESTION:

Doctor, what is the number you need to see more than any other. The number or the indicator you need to see more than any other that will allow you to say to governments you can begin to relax the restrictions? What is the main tell-tale indicator for you?

NICK COATSWORTH:

There is no single tell-tale indicator and I think we have been very clear about that. That there are a whole range of things that we consider on a daily basis. I think Professor Kelly was very clear yesterday that one of the important indicators is the number of cases that you get as a result of one single case. That so-called, basic reproductive number, and we want to try and see that less than one. But that is but one of many indicators that we are going to use, including modelling, including various other indicators. So there won't be a specific day that I can say, because we have passed that threshold, it is time to relax restrictions. That not the way it will work.

QUESTION:

Dr Coatsworth, on the AFP recruits who are being investigated for social distancing breaches. Do you think there should be some sympathy for them given that they already live and train so closely together. Is this an example of a situation where some rules could or potentially need to be relaxed?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I think the first thing to say is that a lot of these rules when they are pragmatically implemented are very difficult. Every single Australian, not just AFP recruits have found that a real challenge. Whether it is an example of one of the early things that we can relax on, I think that is just a matter that we have to consider again on a day by day basis. I just want to really concentrate on that point of when we can relax these sort of restrictions. This is a matter that we had to sustain, the quality of our response, so that we can continue to give you low numbers every day. But it's certainly too early to be talking about relaxation at the moment. It is something that we are thinking about.

QUESTION:

A couple of experts have said to us doctor, that it was very fast into the restrictions, it will have to be very slow out of the restrictions. Fair comment, do you agree?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I think it's one way to put it. I think another way to put it might be; it was very fast into the restrictions and they were very widespread, it needs to be very nuanced on the way out. So you need to be very clear about if you're lifting a restriction, that you have done everything that you can to try and understand exactly what the implications of that lifting will be before you actually implement it. So whether it is slow or not, it needs to be very targeted and focused and that is how it going to be I suspect.

QUESTION:

Doctor, do you have any detail you can share on the thinking that is going into that targeted lifting of restrictions? Any services or activities that might kick in first or later?

NICK COATSWORTH:

You can imagine that it is two weeks since we've been saying- we introduced the very severe restrictions. And so, it would be- no option on or off the table at the moment. Any range or combination of options we are considering and when we have come to a conclusion on that, we will present that to National Cabinet.

QUESTION: 

Doctor, the indicators you see on the behaviour of Australians just over this Easter weekend, obviously longer term, over the few weeks of restrictions, you’re happy. But just this Easter weekend, are you happy? And do you think there is a reasonable chance we will actually see a bump in COVID numbers in a week or two's time? And you will go; right, that was Easter and that was people who weren’t distancing properly?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, no, I mean, we're very happy with what we're seeing Australians do around Easter. We’ve got to remember that this is a holiday time. We've asked Australians to break a lifelong habit with this weekend. And so whilst I acknowledge that there have been isolated instances where people might not have either understood or been following the rules, I don't think that is a widespread concern. As for what might happen in 14 days, we just have two return to the same mantra which is we're not speculating on what is going to happen in 14 days. What we are aiming for is that the news continues to be good.

QUESTION: 

Doctor, can I just ask you a couple of questions for press gallery colleagues not here because of social distancing measures. Would the Government consider allowing Australian companies to produce medicines normally made by Indian and Chinese companies to avoid shortfall?

NICK COATSWORTH:

At this point in time, we are monitoring medication shortfalls and shortages very closely and do something that we do in usual routine business regardless of COVID-19. We are not aware of any current shortages or any likely upcoming shortages. Whether there are specific medications that could be manufactured in country, that could be a matter for the therapeutic goods administration.

QUESTION: 

So there is no concern about a shortfall in medicines like insulin or other essential drugs at this stage?

NICK COATSWORTH:

No, for essential non- COVID related drugs, there is no concern about shortfalls.

QUESTION: 

And just one other question, should nurses and doctors have their registration fee waived this year as a goodwill gesture?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well look as a practicing clinician, I have a conflict of interest in answering that question, I suspect. Look my view is that is something that we will have to take up with APRA at this point in time.

QUESTION: 

Can I ask you another crystal ball question which we’ve been throwing at you. But going into winter, is there any concern that COVID-19 could ramp up again?

NICK COATSWORTH:

There is no evidence at the moment or limited evidence at the moment about a seasonal effect of COVID-19. The concern about winter, of course, is that there are other respiratory viruses, most notably influenza, that we know have a seasonal component of them and do get worse during winter. What I can tell you though is that with all the data that we have got with tracking flew community, with the social distancing that Australians have been doing, those numbers are plummeting. Which is just another great indicator of why this policy is actually working and that Australians are doing what is asked of them.

QUESTION: 

One more question actually. In terms of the new cases, I know you outlined the overall cases but are you aware or are you able to tell us exactly how many new cases there have been since yesterday?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I did have that written down and I will have to take that on notice, I’m Sorry about that. One more question before we go.

Good, okay, thanks ladies and gentlemen. Happy Easter.

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