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

PAUL KELLY:

Good afternoon, and I'm Paul Kelly. I'm the Deputy Chief Medical Officer here to give an update of the situation in relation to COVID-19 as of today. So firstly, the data - so it's 6649 cases. Unfortunately, 74 deaths in that group. So, very few cases since 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon. So far, only four new cases. There may be more later. But we certainly appear to be flattening that curve very successfully at the moment. Of those three deaths that occurred yesterday, three extra deaths, there was a 75-year-old, an 80-year-old and a 92-year-old. The last of those- one of those cases was from the Newmarch aged care facility in Western Sydney. I'll say some words about that facility shortly.

So, we're doing well in terms of flattening the curve. That's the first of the precedents that the Prime Minister set after National Cabinet last week, that we need to absolutely be sure of before we can start to release our social distancing measures. So, we're flattening the curve. The surveillance area, looking at ways we can find cases as quickly as possible, find their contacts as quickly as possible. That talks to having more testing and testing in a wider range of places, a wider range of people, and so that's an important component.

The other one is the app that's been discussed a lot in this last week, and that will really assist us in terms of finding the contacts of people that have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as quickly as possible so that that spread through the community can really be controlled. So, that's an important component of the precedents for releasing social distancing. And the third one is our response capability whenever there is an outbreak related to particularly vulnerable settings, and aged care facilities are one of those vulnerable settings. We need to be able to show how quickly we can assist from the Commonwealth and between states to deal with outbreaks such as that.

So, when we think about those three precedents, let's think about the particular matter of the Newmarch aged care facility in Penrith. I want to really stress that everyone that is involved with that outbreak are working together for the same common aim - that is to look after the wellbeing and the safety of the residents of that facility and to support the people that usually run that facility, Anglicare, to do that in the best way possible.

So, New South- excuse me, New South Wales Health, Anglicare, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission and the Department of Health are all involved in supporting each other in different ways to achieve that aim. From the Commonwealth's point of view, we have offered unlimited workforce support. Unlimited workforce support, that is dealing with the difficult situation of having a large number of patients of residents with COVID-19, but also a number of staff that have had to absent themselves from work because they have been close contacts with someone with COVID-19. We have also offered and they have received personal protective equipment, and Sonic, who is a private provider of laboratory services, under contract with the Commonwealth, has undertaken the testing of the staff of that facility. So, this is a complex situation. A large number of residents with COVID-19. Repeated testing, finding more cases, which is what we want to do, to make sure we are finding cases, even if they are asymptomatic, or mild, so that they can be separated from people that are not having the disease at present. But- and unfortunately, already three deaths from that outbreak. It really does demonstrate how if this virus does escape into those vulnerable members of our society, how quickly things can lead to these sort of unfortunate events.

There has been a press release just put out in the last minute or two from Minister Colbeck, who's the Minister for Aged Care, outlining these matters I've just spoken about, and also to talk about a meeting that will take place tomorrow with the Older Persons Advocacy Network, where family members can, at that point, also express any concerns they have and get answers from the right sources. So with that, I will open up for questioning.

QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, can you provide a condition update on the residents there in terms of how sick people are?

PAUL KELLY:

I don't have the details about the residents themselves, only to say that there is a wide range. Some people are quite sick and others are either mildly affected or, indeed, having no symptoms at all but positive for the nasopharyngeal swab tests. So, there's a range of those. But you'd expect in an elderly population like that, that unfortunately the more severe spectrum of this disease tends to come through. And as I said already, three deaths in that outbreak.

QUESTION:

The Prime Minister yesterday spoke about older people and the need for- you know, potentially people to visit in some cases. Can I ask you in a home setting, how that operates? Is it okay for people to visit their grandparents, for example, and what would you suggest would be the best way for people to social distance or to conduct that meeting outside, or do you have any advice?

PAUL KELLY:

So, I think the Prime Minister has acted on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Committee, and announcements that have been made in the last few days reflect that. Firstly, that important component that we're not relaxing any of the measures at the national level that have been announced up to now for a period of four weeks. So, as a colleague said to me today, just because you're slowing down, you don't take the parachute off when you're approaching the landing, you wait until you've landed. And so we are really very clear - and the Prime Minister is clear about this - that we're waiting for that four weeks to happen before we change our advice broadly about social distancing, and the other measures that have been put into place.

So, to answer your specific question, we have always been at the national level, from the Australian Health Protection Committee, we have always had the opinion that whilst it's important to protect our vulnerable people in aged care facilities, that that does not mean completely locking down at this stage. It is certainly taking every possible way that we can- one can do this to decrease the exposure to people who may have the disease. And so, there are a range of things there. So, the statement from yesterday was really reinforcing that position to aged care facilities, to think about what they have in place in terms of visits.

To relate that back to a specific case of: should grandchildren go to see their grandparents? I think that is a different situation and- to an aged care facility. People should make that decisions themselves. But in general terms, we are still saying just hold off for a little bit longer to protect those vulnerable people in their own home. And so, think about the digital connections, other connections that don't entail very close contact for the time being. Let's see how we are in couple of weeks' time or three weeks' time, and then there will be announcements about relaxing some of these measures and our advice.

QUESTION:

Professor, in terms of rural and regional Australia, could those areas be test cases for easing restrictions?

PAUL KELLY:

So, the rural and regional area is a complex one, really. On the one side, we know that so far Australia has had a relatively small number of cases compared with many other parts of the world, and they have mainly still been associated with international travellers or people coming back from overseas. So, the majority of those people, up to now, have been in our major cities. So, our rural and regional areas, and particularly remote Australia, has been relatively protected. So, for them to take on this burden of social distancing measures and the business restrictions that that has entailed could be seen as being not proportionate to their risk. On the other hand, we do know that remote areas, regional areas, and rural areas of Australia have less capability to cope with a large outbreak in terms of health facilities, for example, or even public health facilities to investigate such outbreaks.

So, I think it's reasonable, again, for us to wait a bit longer to really protect those healthcare assets in those places and to protect the communities in our rural, remote and regional areas.

QUESTION:

Just looking at the issue of education, unions have been pushing for the 4 square metre rule in classrooms but the AHPPC says that isn't necessary. Can you expand on why the committee has taken that position?

PAUL KELLY:

Yeah, so the committee has not taken the position about that 4 metre square rule. That is true. And now that we are looking to reopen schools - I must say I had very good conversations with independent schools yesterday and there are a range of conversations lapping across Australia in relation to this, both with individual schools and education departments and the like. So there is a great keenness to get the kids back to school. We do recognise that the statements that have come out from the Australian Health Protection Committee, from them, and through the National Cabinet, there are some subtleties there which are difficult to interpret and there will be clarification made about that over the coming days, after the next National Cabinet meeting.

QUESTION:

And can I just clarify you said four cases, but I believe the figures that the ABC is running are around seven - why is there a discrepancy there?

PAUL KELLY:

So, this is since 3 o'clock yesterday. It may well be a timing thing. We are seeing more cases every day. I guess the crucial point is there's not many. So, it may well be seven since yesterday morning.

QUESTION:

And just switching from the health side of things, but from a public health perspective, what kind of concerns does the committee have about the impacts of unemployment on public health, and what are the key emerging issues that your committee is seeing in terms of that public health impact?

PAUL KELLY:

I think it's very important that whilst we're really concentrating on this pandemic and its response, that we don't get too narrow in our definition of what are the health effects. So obviously there are the direct health effects of the disease itself and we've talked about those many times. For most people, around 80 per cent, it is a relatively minor illness. For around 20 per cent of people, they can get more severe illness, end up in hospital, intensive care, and for a proportion - probably around 1 per cent of those diagnosed - there is a death rate and we need to consider that. Older people are worse-off than younger people in relation to those severe ends of the spectrum. But we can't ignore other health effects. And so, quite clearly, there are health effects in relation to some of the social distancing measures that have been put in place to protect the community against a large outbreak, a large pandemic here in Australia of COVID-19. And these both mental, physical and physical health effects. And so we need to continue to look at that and to consider whether our response is proportionate to the problem we're trying to deal with, and so really weighing up those risks and benefits from the health perspective, but other perspectives as well. Unemployment, we know, is- can be a very long-term and insidious or even acute health effect and certainly that is a component we need to consider.

QUESTION:

And just in terms of the cruise ship industry, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said today in hindsight he thought that the international cruise ship industry should have been shut down a lot sooner. Do you share this opinion? What do you think about the way the international community dealt with the cruise ship industry?

PAUL KELLY:

Well, the cruise ship industry is quite an industry and there is a large number of ships around the world and many thousands of people are on each ship. So I don't know what the figure, total figure is on any particular day, but it's a very popular and common pastime for a large proportion of the population. Personally. I have never been a cruise ship but I understand from friends and relatives it is a very enjoyable time mostly. So, in terms of shutting it down, it is very easy for- to use hindsight to make these decisions. We made a decision very early in the epidemic in Australia about limiting cruise ship arrivals into Australia. We have allowed cruise ships to come for two main reasons. One, to allow Australians to come home, but also for ships that have demonstrated that they are in distress from COVID-19 or other reasons have docked. And we've seen what that has led to.

So, in terms of cruise ships, we said very early on - and there was very specific advice given to Australians about cruise ships as early as mid-March - that people should reconsider whether they should go on cruise ships as part of the advice that came from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, as I recall. So, we've been clear in our advice. Most people have taken that advice on board and I think there are now only two cruise ships still in Australian waters, and none of those have passengers on them.

QUESTION:

I understand politicians are being briefed today about the contact tracing app you mentioned in your preamble. What is your pitch to the Australian public at this point? Obviously there is a great degree of scepticism about whether or not people are going to take up this technology?

PAUL KELLY:

Yeah. So the app, as I've spoken about before, is completely voluntary. It will be - and it could be as it comes on - a very useful tool to assist public health authorities in state health departments or local public health units to really much more rapidly and more completely perform the contact tracing function, which forms part of our quarantine and isolation of cases and contacts so that that spread of the virus will decrease in the community. Why is that important? It's important because if we can really get on top of that, it will allow us much more leeway to change these social distancing measures, which I'm sure we all want to see happen. So, my pitch, if you like, to the Australian people is please consider this. It's completely voluntary. I know that some people won't take it up and that's their decision. Our research so far appears that there is actually quite a lot of support for this app, as it is seen to be. And it is only about collecting that information about where you have been in contact with someone, only is used when someone with the app has a diagnosis of COVID-19. It is only going to be used by state or local public health officials. It will not be available to anyone else. And after 21 days, it's gone.

QUESTION:

And what research is that sorry, Professor? Are you able to expand? Is it focus grouping? How have you gauged community interest in it?

PAUL KELLY:

Yeah, so there's been a number of ways of doing that, both surveys and focus groups. So, yeah as I said, there's essentially three groups. I think there are people quite reasonably concerned about privacy concerns and other matters. For some people that is a complete game breaker and they are not going to even consider downloading it. Others when explained what the limitations of the app are and the privacy and data security and so forth, elements which are absolutely crucial to it, are persuaded towards the other group who are happy to do their part. They can see how it will help the effort more broadly. But also how it could protect themselves and their families by having that information about having been a contact much more quickly so that action can be taken.

QUESTION:

Just to clarify that then, does that research suggest we're going to reach the 40 per cent threshold for it to be really useful?

PAUL KELLY:

Look, anything more than zero is going to be useful. Obviously, the higher the number, the better. Whether we get to 40 per cent or higher or lower, that remains to be seen. I think this is completely voluntary, it will depend on how many people take up the app. And so I would certainly encourage all Australians to consider it, to think through for themselves, whether they would like to download that. And then to really understand when that information comes out later this week with more detail, whether it's for them, and if it's not for them, that's fine. That's their decision. Okay, thank you very much.

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