Deputy Chief Medical Officer’s press conference about COVID-19 on 16 September 2020

Read the transcript of Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth's press conference about COVID-19 on 16 September 2020.

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Good afternoon everybody, Dr Nick Coatsworth with today’s national update on COVID-19. The total number of new cases in the 24 hours to noon today was 53, taking the national COVID-19 total in this pandemic to 26,779 people diagnosed with coronavirus disease. New South Wales reported 10 new cases, six of those were overseas acquired in hotel quarantine and four of those were locally acquired and contacts of confirmed cases or known clusters.         

Overnight, Victoria has reported 42 new cases, 29 of those were locally acquired and contacts of a confirmed case or known cluster, and 13 of those remain under investigation.             

Western Australia reported one new case which was overseas acquired and that person was in hotel quarantine.              

Eight people died from coronavirus disease in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of deaths to 824. And 127 people remain hospitalised, of whom there are 16 people severely unwell and in intensive care units.              

The numbers are clearly improving on a national level, and most pleasingly in Victoria. And the seven-day rolling average of course dipped below 50 cases per day; 49.6, just came in under 50. But very positive news and a testimony to the titanic efforts of the Victorian community in Melbourne and surrounds under the Stage 4 restrictions, and also regional Victoria as well. And certainly pleasing to see that some of those restrictions that regional Victorians have been living under are starting to be lifted. This is of course in the context of a global pandemic. A pandemic that in many countries around the world that have lifted their restrictions are seeing an acceleration in the spread of the virus and an increase in the number of cases. France topped 10,000 cases per day only a few days ago. And this is testimony to the significant burden that COVID-19 places on communities, on health systems. The significant burden it places on nations and economies. It demonstrates that the Australian response, even with what we've seen in Victoria in the second wave, has- remains an exemplar for the world and testimony to the quality of our public health units, the tireless work of our public health professionals, the adaptability and flexibility of our test, trace, isolate systems, and of course, the capacity of our healthcare system; one of the best in the world and one that has been able to provide care for Australians when and where they need it if they suffer from COVID-19.

Today, I have four journalists on the phone, and I'm going to go to Jade from the ABC first. And if I can just ask, please don't hang up after you finish your question. Thank you. Go ahead, Jade.


Thank you. I just wanted to ask if you had a paper that I believe, you co-authored [indistinct]… antibodies test shows that up to 70,000 might be infected with COVID by mid-July, much higher than the official numbers. [indistinct]…


Yes, thank you. So the paper that I co-authored is on preprint. It's available online. And in particular, pay tribute to the lead author Sarah Hicks and the senior author Professor Ian Cockburn for that study. This was part of the National Pandemic Health Intelligence Plan, and the specific aim of the study was actually to look at the number of people attending our hospitals for elective surgery and seeing if they had positive nasal swabs, positive PCR results. And the headline result of that study was that over just- just over 3,000 patients were enrolled. And if they didn't have symptoms of COVID-19, they went and had elective surgery. During their procedure, had a nasal swab. Zero patients were positive for COVID-19 at the time of surgery. We took the opportunity to take a blood test at the same time and look for antibodies to COVID-19. That revealed strongly positive antibody results, in I think it was five out of around about 2990 patients. That could be inferred to suggest that if you took that 0.28 per cent positivity, and applied it across the whole country, there were potentially 60,000 patients who hadn't been diagnosed with COVID-19 but who were antibody positive. This is where the interpretation of a single study needs to be qualified, of course. This was only a sample of 2990 patients. It was not the whole 25 million Australians. That means that this estimate of potentially 70,000 patients around Australia having positive COVID-19 antibodies is exactly that. It is an estimate. It doesn't precisely correspond to reality. In fact, the range of that estimate is somewhere between zero and 185,000, if we read the paper. Now that can be tricky to explain, but it's not going to change our policy. We base our restrictions policy on the number of acute cases of COVID-19, and that's diagnosed by PCR and nasal swab, not by antibody tests. But this is nonetheless important information. It was done on- it was a study done on elective surgery patients and it will be built upon by a national study of people's antibodies to COVID-19 which is being conducted by the Kirby Institute as part of our Pandemic Health Intelligence Plan.

Josh, from the New Daily.


Thank you, doctor. On the airport arrivals caps we've been hearing about today, I understand the proposal that was outlined this morning went to the Health Department before it was shared around. On a medical point of view, what- could I ask for your appraisal of that proposal and are you confident that the states' and territories' hotel quarantine system could sustain what's intentionally(*) a 50 per cent increase in capacity? Are there any risks in increasing the caps by so much in one hit?


Well thanks, Josh. This is an important balance to be able to strike. Obviously there are some 25,000 Australians who are overseas wishing to come back and the cap on the number of people in hotel quarantine is obviously a limiting factor in how quickly those individuals can return to their friends and family in Australia. We've had- our hotel quarantine has been very successful as a policy. Seven out of eight of the jurisdictions have managed within their own capacity, the hotel quarantine system, and there was some of the issues with the Victorian hotel quarantine which are being detailed in the inquiry at the moment. We have asked one of Australia's most senior former health public servants in Jane Halton to conduct a nationwide review, looking at each particular jurisdiction's approach to hotel quarantine. And I think we can be confident that the learnings from Victoria, that the systems, the processes already in place, some of those learnings and systems and processes include supervised infection control and making sure that the people administering the hotel quarantine, the people who are making sure that people stay in hotel quarantine are well trained in infection prevention and control, as an example. So clearly we have learnt about how to refine those systems and processes, to make sure that the risk is low. And that risk will be as low as humanly possible. And we also will be able to bring more Australians back into the country.            

We'll go to Dana from Fairfax now.


Thanks Dr Coatsworth. Could I just ask you about the AHPPC's proposed definition of a COVID free zone as no locally acquired cases that pose a risk to the community in the previous 28 days. Does that mean no community transmission or no mystery cases for 28 days and why was that timeframe recommended? How does it fit in with the previous Commonwealth hotspot definition?


Well, Dana, this AHPPC paper on hotspots or COVID-free zones is of course now something that's gone further up the chain to National Cabinet. So it's not quite appropriate for me to be able to give commentary on it at this press conference. With specific regard to the COVID-free zones, that is no different of course to the previous stated aim of aggressive suppression, which is to have no cases of unlinked community transmission. So that particular aim has been the basis of the aggressive suppression strategy for quite some time.            

And we'll move to Paul from AAP.


Thank you, Dr Coatsworth. Just wanting to know has any work been done by the AHPPC or other bodies about assessing accommodation that's not hotels, things like defence bases, immigration and so on, in terms of their health risks and their capacity for bringing in some of these people who want to return from overseas?


Well, the AHPPC of course, Paul, sets the policy for hotel quarantine or, sorry, I should say supervised quarantine, as being the policy that minimises risk of importation into Australia. Where that specifically occurs does not necessarily need to be a hotel, of course. It could be any one of a number of settings. But the principles under which that supervised quarantine would need to take place would be universal regardless of whether it was a hotel, whether it was a detention centre, whether it was Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, which as you might recall, brought back Australians who were on the Diamond Princess during the first wave. So infection control procedures need to be excellent. The supervision needs to be excellent from people who are experienced and educated in being able to understand infection control and so those principles are established by the AHPPC, but where it's enacted will be a matter for the state and territory governments. Okay. And given it's a bit difficult to go to second questions on the phone, I might close off there and look forward to providing further updates in the coming days. Thank you.


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