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

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So we have 6,565 cases now, that's up 42 since yesterday. And we have unfortunately 68 deaths. One of the deaths that happened overnight or yesterday was a 42-year-old man who was a crew member on the Artania cruise ship in, which is as we speak leaving Fremantle on its way to the Philippines. So that is by far our youngest person that has died in Australia from this disease and a terrible tragedy for that man and his family. But it is a reminder for us that this is not just an old person's disease. We are all in this together for a reason. Because it can affect any of us and while it is true to say that the majority of cases, over 80 per cent are mild, some of them can be very severe. So we still have 55 people across Australia in intensive care right now, some of those have been ventilated, some of them extremely sick. So, and now this young man who has passed away. So these are really strong reminders for us why we are taking this disease seriously and why, indeed, the whole world is taking this pandemic seriously.

We are continuing to concentrate on the way out of where we are now. Australia has done extremely well compared with the rest of the world up to this point. But it is not a time for us to decrease the measures that we have in place. We have, for example, been one of the major testing countries for COVID-19 and a recent paper published by the London school of hygiene and tropical medicine, I am an alumnus of that institution, in London, show that we are at the highest level in terms of case ascertainment and making sure that the cases that are out there are being found. We reached a milestone, we now have over 400,000 test that have been documented, done here in Australia, and so again, by sheer numbers, we are doing a lot of testing.

But one of the challenges that was put back to the Australian Health Protection Committee from the National Cabinet on Thursday was for us to continue to look and consider what our testing strategy should be into the future. So that is part of our surveillance plan that we are developing, and we had a discussion about that today at our Australian health protection committee meeting with the other chief health offices. I chaired that meeting today and we discussed what that surveillance plan should look like and particularly, what should we be doing in terms of expanding testing, now that we have that capability to do that right throughout Australia.

As we see less cases coming to us, what we would say passively, coming to us because they are sick and we call that passive surveillance, we want to see how we can actively go out into the community to find more cases, if indeed they are there. And so, that will require us to think about how we do, for example, sentinel surveillance, which might be doing laboratory testing in places where we don't know there are cases. To see if they are, indeed, are some. It will lead us to consider what we would do in the case of outbreaks in high risk settings.

So we're seeing a real example of that right now north-west Tasmania where there has been an association of a healthcare worker with three aged care facilities in north-west Tasmania so, in the last 24 hours, almost 500 tests have been done on all the residents and the staff of those facilities. As part of the measures that are being done to control that outbreak in north-western Tasmania. There are nurses that are travelling as we speak across the Bass Strait to assist in that effort in relation to the aged care facilities and particularly in relation to those staff of those facilities that have had to go into quarantine as a safety measure to protect that vulnerable group. I think, so that is a key component of our strategy going forward.

The other thing we discussed today at the Australian Health Protection Committee meeting was about our rapid response capability. How should we, and how could we, respond to things like what is occurring in north-western Tasmania at the moment? The sort of response that went to assist, to WA in relation to the cruise ship, other requests for assistance that may come into the future. How do we prioritise those things? How do we make sure that the right staff, equipment and whatever else is necessary, laboratory capability, would be another component of that, would be available. And how would we make sure that that is prioritised in the areas of greatest need, on the basis of what may occur into the future, as we look to release some of those social distancing measures.

So that is the way forward. It is four weeks that we have now that the Prime Minister has mentioned, we need to have those things in place. And we are working very strongly and collaboratively across Australia to achieve those milestones. So happy to take questions now.

QUESTION:

Dr Kelly, just wanted to ask you about the tracing app. Do you believe that it needs to be mandatory for all Australians to download it and use it in order to reach above 40 per cent. And was that the Protection Committee's advice to government.

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

 I just want to be very clear about the app that was, there was speculation about that yesterday. This is absolutely and totally voluntary and the Prime Minister has tweeted about that this morning as well, just to make it very clear. This is a voluntary addition to work that we already do as a routine in relation to public health measures. So the app would assist and could assist very strongly the case finding and contact tracing efforts which are absolutely crucial for us to continue to flatten that curve. So we don't have an app now so we don't have that to assist us. So a one per cent uptake of the app would be an improvement. The more that we have, the better it would be. To make it very clear, this is a voluntary process.

QUESTION:

Do you expect that many Australians at all will take up?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Well, I hope they do and certainly, I think there is a lot of benefit of having such an app and to be very clear, it is only in relation to data that is required for contact tracing and it will only be given to the health officials in the particular state or public health unit who is involved with that contact tracing for that individual who was the case. There is no geolocation or anything like that on this app. It is only based on doing contact tracing and case finding in a very rapid and hopefully wider fashion to protect all of us. So if I was to be in contact with the case and I had that app on my phone and the person who was infectious had it on their phone, then I could be alerted to that fact, even though I did not perhaps know that person that I was in close contact with.

QUESTION:

Apps overseas that are similar, haven't had a huge uptake 20 to 25 per cent, are you looking to other countries to see what they have done and see how we can improve on it here?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Certainly, and in fact the app that we are looking to develop is based on the Singapore app which has done exactly what I described. They haven't had a huge uptake in Singapore so whether we will match that or not remains to be seen but it is a purely voluntary thing. It will be explained in more detail over the coming week as it is being developed and we continue to make it available as part of the protection of the Australian public, as well as something that could be of assistance to our public health authorities to do their work.

QUESTION:

Just on the situation in Tasmania, do you believe that the health authorities are getting a handle on the situation there?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Absolutely, and I have full faith in the abilities of the Tasmanian health authorities. Mark Veitch there, the chief public health officer is on Australian health committee and has a great team that works with him. We have provided assistance in- from the national assets known as the AUSMAT teams and we have heard a lot about them in recent months. I believe Minister Hunt calls them the SAS of the health workforce and indeed they are, a rapidly deployable force that can be put in there and so they are there on the ground and as I mentioned, there are nurses on their way on the Spirit of Tasmania at the moment to assist to relieve the aged care facilities.

QUESTION:

You mentioned in your opening statement, that with regards to testing, going out into the community to do testing, and can you elaborate on what that might look like?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

So I think this is something that would be definitely guided- so, I think we would be doing the general principles like we have been doing all the way along from the national picture so from the Australian Health Protection Committee and we have widened this task out to a group of experts who are very good at surveillance and very experienced in these matters. Because this is a new field, in a way. Most infectious disease surveillance as has happened up to now in relation to COVID-19 has relied on people going to see a doctor if they are sick and the test going to the laboratory and the test result going into public health action as I have described. What we're talking about here is something much broader. Trying to find cases that would not necessarily come to hospital because we know that people that are mildly sick, they may not come to hospital or general practice or to one of the COVID clinics necessarily to seek treatment. They may not recognise the signs of being this particular illness. They may not have symptoms at all, in fact, but still be infectious. So we are at that stage now of the epidemic in Australia where we need to take those ones much more seriously than we were when we were seeing hundreds of cases every day. And we were definitely concentrating on that side. So this is a way of getting out into the community and doing essentially offering relatively random testing potentially for people in high risk situations, for example. I know in other countries, they have done testing of supermarket employees, for example. People that are at risk insofar as they have close contact with many people during the day. So, and those results are only just been done so I am not sure what the results I get of the particular testing but there is an example of thinking of a group that might be able to show that there is a case when we did not see it or to assure us that there are no cases and so, both of those pieces of information are obviously very vital in our response.

QUESTION:

I just have one final question. Nursing homes said they are struggling to get their hands on enough protective equipment and not enough funding for extra staff to deal with this quarantine situation. Is it time to reassess that?

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY:

Certainly, we are concerned about aged care facilities because they house our most vulnerable population in terms of this disease and so we know that older people and those with chronic diseases are at a higher risk of getting severe COVID-19. In which case we need to do everything we can to protect them and including protecting the workforce. We found in the relatively few outbreaks we have had so far in aged care facilities that it can spread very quickly, including to the workforce, so we must protect our workforce as best we can. So there is- we are in a much better position in terms of personal protective equipment and we were even a few weeks ago. There will be more announcements about that in coming days. But we certainly do have much more protective equipment than we previously had. And that is available to the aged care facilities, as it is to our frontline health workers as well.

OK, thanks very much.

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