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

PAUL KELLY:

Thank you very much everyone for coming. Paul Kelly, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, just giving the daily briefing on the issues that we're facing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

So there were a lot of announcements over the weekend. I was with the Prime Minister at a press conference yesterday, who announced about the various new measures we're putting in place, and this week, it's all about slowing the curve of the epidemic. So, when we talk about that, we're really doing what we can now whilst we still have only a relatively small number of cases of this infection in Australia to decrease the pressure that we may find on our healthcare system in the coming weeks and months. We're seeing what's happening in Europe, in North America and previously in China in relation to the healthcare issues that come from this virus.

For most people, it is a minor disease and we're finding that wherever it has developed in the world, that that's pretty standard. About 80 per cent of people that get sick with this virus have a mild illness. However, there are some, around 20 per cent, that do require more serious healthcare, whether that's through primary care, general practice, or in hospital and indeed, in our intensive care units. And unfortunately, there are some people that die.

Here in Australia, we now have almost 300 cases. That has risen quite significantly over the last week or two and unfortunately now, five deaths. All in elderly people. I'll make that point very clear as well. What we're seeing around the whole world is that for children and for young adults, the death rate is extremely low, and the serious illness in those age groups is also very rare. However, for people in the older age groups – and I would include myself in that – so people over the age of 60, they are more susceptible to this disease and they are finding, we are finding, particularly in the much older age groups, 80 and above, that the death rate is actually quite high.

So, what we're doing today, this week, and throughout our response to this epidemic in Australia, is trying to slow that curve so that we can manage those serious illnesses when and if they occur. So we're now at almost 300 cases in Australia. Five deaths. In the global situation, over 160,000 cases. And overnight, we reached a milestone there as well. There are now more cases outside of China than there were in those early days when the epidemic was only in China.

So, just a couple of other things to say in terms of what we're doing. So yesterday, there were announcements by the Prime Minister. I was with him in that press conference when he talked about mass gatherings and the limitations on those, and we're working through what that means in terms of particular sports, particular events and so forth, so that we'll have much clearer information for people in the days to come; so that individual organisers, event organisers, event venues and so forth can make their own decisions in relation to those matters. The other announcement was scaling up of our border measures so that we're asking every person that comes back internationally from any country in the world to self-isolate for two weeks. They were the two key areas that we talked about yesterday.

This afternoon, myself, the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, and the chief health officers from all of the states and territories will be having a face to face meeting. This is the second time we've met face to face with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. We are now officially a subcommittee of the national cabinet organisation. And so we will be providing specific information in relation to those public health measures and other matters to the next meeting of that national cabinet, which is destined for tomorrow night. This is the second time we've met through the epidemic. We meet every day of course by telephone, but we find that these particular moments when things have changed a lot or new information has to be very – requires very detailed thinking and advice, we do meet together; 1.5 metres apart of course.

So, I'm happy to now take questions on any of those matters.

QUESTION: 

The Prime Minister has asked you to review advice on enclosed spaces. Could you – is that something you'll be reviewing today and is that, could you just clarify what that actually refers to?

PAUL KELLY:

So this is in relation to the mass events or the large gatherings. So, whether there should be some specific information in relation to gatherings and enclosed spaces, as compared with ones that are outside. So a football stadium versus a pub, for example. Should we be thinking about those elements? And just to revise what those elements are, we've set a number of 500. That's similar to other countries. Some have gone to smaller gatherings. I believe Austria announced five overnight. That would not be a mass gathering, in my view, but it would be a gathering. It should be seen Austria is at a very different time in the epidemic. Many more cases. They're in winter and so on.

So for us, we've picked 500 and we feel that that's a reasonable amount. Whether that should be modified for internal events is something that will be under consideration today.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] number under 500 for internal events [indistinct]?

PAUL KELLY:

We'll be considering it today in the AHPPC.

QUESTION:

So will there be an announcement today on that? Got an announcement today on that?

PAUL KELLY:

Our advice will be going from the Australian Health Protection Committee to the national cabinet. We're now a subcommittee of that cabinet. They will be making decisions. And just to stress, we have been asked to give frank and fearless medical advice from the beginning and that's what we will continue to do. But of course, Government should take that into account with other matters, social, economic and so on.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, what do you do with something like aged care facilities? The elderly are particularly vulnerable. You've also got remote Indigenous communities, where Indigenous Australians are also vulnerable. Do you look at isolating those particular areas, segregating them from the rest of the community, from the rest of Australia, to try and help prevent the spread of this virus?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, the two particular matters that you raised there are front of mind – so vulnerable people in general, including the disabled. But aged care, that's where a lot of the older people in Australia, the ones that are at most risk of the serious end of this disease, are residing. And so, absolutely. We're taking that very closely and carefully and giving advice specifically around aged care in terms of residential aged care [and] home care. In terms of remote areas, a lot of particular issues there, many people with other chronic diseases, again, a high-risk community. But even more than that, of course, they're already remote and remote from health care. So, they are of a particular concern. And indeed, in the Northern Territory, this takes in mass events as well as remoteness.

The Tiwi football grand final was on the weekend and there were – the community themselves made a decision to really limit the number of people coming to that. A major cultural event, a major sporting event, for the Northern Territory has already been affected. I think there's another question over here.

QUESTION:

Professor, so one of the issues that's emerging in Europe is a lack of ventilators. What's the situation in Australia? Do we have sufficient? Are we sourcing more? And could you rule out having to ration access to them [indistinct] situation?

PAUL KELLY:

So, I'll stress again that most people will not require a ventilator. So 80 per cent of people will be mildly affected and won't even end up in hospital, let alone intensive care, let alone needing ventilation. That's very much the end of the spectrum. I'll reiterate again also that what we're doing in terms of public health, things at the moment, in terms of the mass gatherings, in terms of the isolation and so forth, is all about flattening that curve to decrease the pressure on intensive care. So we're doing all that.

To answer your question, that's also come up in the US overnight. And so, yes. We're looking in a very detailed way across all of Australia's intensive care units, working closely with the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society and states and territories to look at exactly that issue.

QUESTION:

Do we need more in the country? Is that an issue?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, we're looking at the supply and we're looking at what we can do to dampen the demand. So I'll leave it at that.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, when it comes to aged care – you're obviously looking into that –  what are some specific measures that you will be discussing, some specific options? Is there anything you've seen overseas that you'll be looking at?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, certainly we need to do what we can to limit the opportunity for the infection to come into aged care. So there are, yes, a range of measures that we actually put in place in flu seasons when there's either a large number of influenza cases in the community, or indeed, if there is an outbreak within an aged care facility, to look at what we can do within the facility to make sure anyone who is sick is separated from others, but in the first case, to try and limit the opportunity for the infection to come in.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] potentially stop more visitors?

PAUL KELLY:

They're certainly things that are on the table and we'll be providing more advice on that in coming days.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, with the two deaths we've seen overnight, in both cases the two women who passed away were tested and proven positive for coronavirus after they'd actually died. So it wasn't known at the time that they had it. Is that a concern to you in terms of how we are conducting testing, specifically given that one of those cases was in the aged care home that had that mass outbreak?

PAUL KELLY:

So certainly we are prioritising testing to where we think that most of the cases are at the moment. And for now, it's still the case that most of the people that have COVID in Australia right now are actually people that have come back from overseas. We're on that tipping point to an extent where there are now some cases we're finding that don't have that definite link. But for the time being, the testing is certainly being prioritised there. Plus, areas that we know where there is an outbreak. And that one particular aged care facility in Sydney is one of those places.

So yes, we need to be looking closely at people that have these type of symptoms and to test them where that's appropriate.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] running out of testing kits for the virus? And are we looking to secure more supplies?

PAUL KELLY:

So, the testing kits are fine. There are some issues in relation to some of the consumables around the test. And we're certainly looking very closely at that. That's a global issue. As you can imagine, there's a lot of testing going on. All of those 160,000 people that we have definite diagnoses on have all had at least one test. And this is a rapidly emerging issue. A new test wasn't there a couple of months ago. So, these are not surprising, but we're looking at ways that we can deal with that shortage.

QUESTION:

Can you give some specifics around that, please? What do you mean by consumables? And how long do our supplies of testing kits last? And is this what's driving your decision not to test more widely than the people returning from overseas and the people they're in contact?

PAUL KELLY:

So, we need to be careful and prudent about our testing. Just on testing, you need to look at where you get your best bang for the buck, really. For example, in one state, they opened a couple of fever clinics immediately. 1600 people were tested. Only one of those was positive. So, I think we have to look, very carefully, at how we're doing the testing, where we're doing the testing. And yes, that has put some strain on some of these consumables in the laboratory. I won't go into the details but there are many things in the laboratory that are needed other than the tests.

QUESTION:

Can you tell us how much longer the testing will last? [Indistinct] available at the moment?

PAUL KELLY:

We're continuing to test.

QUESTION:

What's your level of concern for taxi drivers, Uber drivers, those people who are picking up international visitors and people who have returned from overseas? Will they [indistinct]?

PAUL KELLY:

Yes, that's an issue. And in fact, we've had some people ask about that – the travellers themselves, as well as the taxi drivers, Uber drivers and so forth. In other places they have been a risk group. What I'd say at the moment is those issues about – we've asked people to self-isolate when they come in through the border from midnight last night. This is about slowing the epidemic. It's not about stopping it completely. We will have more cases. What we're trying to do is have less and over a longer time. So in terms of the masks themselves, we won't be giving out masks to people unless they are actually symptomatic at the border.

QUESTION:

Grandparents looking after their grandchildren – should those sorts of arrangements stop?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, I think people have to make their own decisions. Look, we're all in this together and people will have to decide themselves about their own risk and the risk for themselves and their children. And it's certainly something that people should be considering – that vulnerable group are the elderly.

QUESTION:

Just on masks, are there enough for GPs to be able to treat patients? We sent off a bunch of masks to China while the epidemic was going on there? Was that a wise decision? Do we now have/face a shortage of masks?

PAUL KELLY:

So, we have masks. We have our national stockpile. We have over 20 million masks in our national stockpile. States and territories also have their stockpiles. Look, it's no secret that masks are short around the world, and we're looking at every way we can to increase supply into Australia, including boosting local production. And that's something that's a real focus for us at the moment. We're also looking at decreasing demand. What can we do in terms of limiting the masks that we have to health workers? The last thing we want is for health workers to stop working because they're concerned.

QUESTION:

What percentage of the population are you modelling could be infected in the next month and a half? Is it 20 per cent? That's what New South Wales were talking about on Friday. Or I've heard doctors say 60 per cent. What's your modelling saying?

PAUL KELLY:

So, yes, I think Angela Merkel said 60 per cent of Germans the other night. My colleague Kerry Chant talked about 20 per cent. It's something in that range. I'm not going to speculate on the actual numbers. But this is an infectious disease. The more we can do to separate people and to stop that infection spreading, the better.

QUESTION:

How many deaths will be a result of that?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, the death rate is around 1 per cent. So you can do the maths.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, we've heard a lot in recent weeks about the AHPPC. It is now one of the most powerful groups in the country giving advice to governments around the country on this crisis. People wouldn't have heard of it until now. What is it, and what does the AHPPC do?

PAUL KELLY:

So, the Australian Health Protection [Principal] Committee, yes, hasn't been a celebrity committee up until now, it must be said. So, I think everyone has heard about it in the last few weeks. What it actually does, it brings together the best medical expertise from the public health point of view, from the states and territories, from the Federal Government, and some invited experts.

So the modelling and so forth you've been seeing presented by the Prime Minister yesterday –we have a modeller that's been co-opted onto the committee. We have infectious disease experts. We have others that are more expert in laboratories, and so forth. So that's a group that we meet. It's been meeting for many, many years on a regular basis. And since the start of this epidemic and indeed before that in the bushfires, was meeting on a daily basis. We've been meeting virtually daily since January.

And so, we're there to provide that public health advice, to gather the evidence from infectious diseases, from laboratories, from emergency specialists, and others, to provide that advice to government so that they can make the decisions they need to make.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] businesses giving advice to work from home? Is that something the health department recommends?

PAUL KELLY:

Sorry, can you just repeat that?

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] businesses are telling their employees to work from home. Is that something the health department recommends?

PAUL KELLY:

So, we're all in this together. So we need to start thinking about what we can do in that personal isolation piece – not to become isolated – we still need to be there for each other. But to think about, and this is something for all businesses to think about, what we can do to decrease infection in our own workplaces. It's particularly important for those that are involved with emergency services, with healthcare, and so forth, to consider what feasibly can be done in that way. Last question, yes?

QUESTION:

This morning there's been reports that there were two people infected on a flight with Peter Dutton. What's your best assessment of what is happening there? Is that a coincidence in your view, or does that indicate that it's possible that he was infectious earlier than we thought? What's the likelihood, and what are you doing [indistinct]?

PAUL KELLY:

So, I spoke to Mr Dutton in his hospital room on Friday night and I'm not going to go into the details of his particular illness, but I can say that he was not infectious on the plane. Whether he caught it on the plane or before that, it's hard to know. We know that the incubation period for this particular virus is quite long. It can be up to 14 days, but mostly five to six days. He'd been back in Australia for, I think, six days by the time he became sick.

QUESTION:

So he was not infectious on that plane?

PAUL KELLY:

I don't believe so, no.

QUESTION:

Just on the international self-isolation, we've talked about taxi drivers and things; what about people who then get domestic connecting flights to continue home? What's the advice around them? Should they be somehow distancing? What's the risk there?

PAUL KELLY:

So, we've been dealing with that issue since the start of this epidemic. And so, essentially, if people are found to be symptomatic when they arrive, then they won't be travelling on. But people that are well when they arrive will be allowed to travel back to their homes, and that's the best place for them to be.

Okay, thanks. I'm going to leave it there. Thank you.

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