Deputy Chief Medical Officer’s press conference about COVID-19 on 4 April 2020
Read the transcript of the 4 April 2020 press conference given by Professor Paul Kelly, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, about coronavirus (COVID-19).
Paul Kelly the Deputy Chief Medical Officer here to give the daily update for the COVID-19 issues. I just want to give a couple of points, first of all, and then we will have some questions. The first thing I want to say is about the data of the day, so 5,544 cases so far in Australia, and unfortunately 30 deaths. So we have had an increase again over the last 24 hours. The good news about that is that the daily increases are definitely less than they were a week or so ago. And that really talks to the effectiveness of some of the ways we have tried to deal with the virus over the last few weeks.
But I want to talk about that data. That is still, even though that is an improvement in terms of the number of cases that are coming every day. That is still about 250 people that are contracting the virus, and still five people that have died in the last 24 hours. These are real people, real examples, and it really talks to why we are being so tough in relation to some of these really quite large changes that have happened in our lives over the past few weeks. It also - the other issue I would like to mention there is that anything we try to do to slow the spread of the virus does take some time before we can be sure that that's making an effect.
So much of the decrease in the daily cases we have seen in the last week are really to do with what we did at the border two or three weeks ago in relation to decreasing people coming into Australia, decreasing that travel related push of virus cases in the community. And that is about the biology of the virus. There is a period between being infected and being diagnosed with the disease, and it's about a week. So it generally will take two or three weeks after introducing a measure before we see the full effect of those things.
So at the moment we are tracking quite well, that flattening of the curve we have talked about for some time now appears to be happening. But I really would caution against thinking that we have got through this completely, because we definitely have not, and we really have to be hyper-vigilant now in collecting the information and making some decisions about what that means in terms of the people that are getting infected, the people that are getting sick, those that are using our hospital system, those that need to be admitted to intensive care, and so on. But some of these restrictions are very tough, and I think it is incredible and extraordinary how Australians have embraced these different ways of living. Even in my own family, I know that my nieces and nephews, for example, very, very active, some of them, in their early teens, and they have on average had 30 hours of sport a week. They are no longer able to access those team sport events. And so they are looking for ways that they can deal with this at home, looking at ways to keep physically active but also to take advantage of the 30 extra hours a week they have to interact with their family. So these are important things.
Many people have been separated from loved ones. In my own family, there are people in New York, in the UK, in Italy. They cannot be seeing their parents at the moment, my siblings. So these are tricky times. My own daughter has lost her job, so these are real events, affecting us both from the virus itself, as well as the effects on our society. And it is a difficult balancing act, which we will continue to be led by the data and the information that we are gathering. Our experiences we are gathering from other parts of the world, who are some months ahead of us in terms of the virus and the epidemic. And that advice will go to government, and those decisions will be made on a regular basis.
So I think the only other thing I would like to mention, because it has been making quite a lot of news overnight, is in relation to mask use, and the CDC, the Centres for Disease Control and prevention in the US, have made some advice about the US situation and the use of masks in the community. We have been talking about masks a lot here, and particularly in relation to masks and their use in healthcare, and we really, from our national stockpile perspective, have made some gains there in terms of supply coming from overseas, and also building up the capability in Australia to make our own masks. These are very important, crucial steps to make sure that our healthcare workers on the frontline are feeling safe about caring for people with this highly infectious disease. That is incredibly important and that will remain our focus. In terms of mask use in the community, I would stress again, at the moment we do not think that is a good idea, partly because of that constrained supply. But also the effectiveness in relation to people walking around with masks. The key point there; masks can be useful to stop the spread from a person with the disease to other people if that mask is used correctly, that's true. And secondly, if the mask is something- a mask that is manufactured in the way that we supported from the Australian standards. But at this time, our advice remains, if you are sick, stay at home. If you are sick and you need to seek, for example, health professional support, please ring ahead and there will be appropriate ways of dealing with that safely when you get to the fever clinic, the emergency department, or wherever it is that you are going to, your GP, for example. So for the moment, mask use not recommended for the Australian public, and we can continue to look at ways, and indeed we are actively looking at ways, of thinking about mask use into the future.
So I will leave it there, and I am happy to take questions.
Just to explore that mask question, Dr Kelly. Are you saying that even when supply reaches an adequate level that it could be readily available for community use, there is almost a psychological, behavioural reason why you don't see Australia going down the US path?
So it is a slightly complex question, but I think the first thing is the constrained supply, so let's leave that one aside for now. If we had unlimited numbers of masks, I think it would be important to have a conversation with the Australian community, who unlike many countries in Asia where it is very commonly used, to wear masks for a variety of purposes, partly pollution related, but also issues of personal hygiene and so on. This is not a way that in general Australians use masks. So there is that side of it. The second side is, using a mask incorrectly can actually make it more dangerous. So for example, if you are not used to wearing a mask, it can become quite uncomfortable, even claustrophobic. And indeed, it can become quite itchy underneath the mask. So touching a surface with the virus, scratching yourself underneath the mask, could in fact increase your risk rather than decrease your risk. If we got to that point, then certainly there would be a need for a strong conversation about how to fit a mask properly and how to use it could be used safely and effectively.
There has been news out of China that they're reopening wet markets. Is that a prudent move or does that risk further outbreaks?
So wet markets are common in China and many other parts of Asia, including Southeast Asia. Wet markets are places where live animals up for sale, and there are various reasons for that, cultural as well as practical ones, in places without a great deal of refrigeration, for example. Those decisions will need to be taken by the countries concerned. I have been involved in the past, looking at avian influenza, for example, in outbreaks in Indonesia and other places. And certainly there are ways of making wet markets safer. But in general, as we have found with this particular outbreak, a so-called zoonotic outbreak, a virus that has spread from one type of animal- other types of animals into humans, wet markets, where there are a lot of live animals in close proximity to a lot of humans, increases that risk. But in terms of this particular virus, the COVID-19 virus, really that jump from the other animals to humans has already occurred. And so the major risk, really, is in large numbers of humans coming together, rather than the markets themselves, at this point.
There is noticeably cooler weather sweeping through the south-east of Australia, even talks of snow on the Alps. As far as survivability, either airborne or on a surface, is there anything you can tell us about temperature ranges that may or may not affect the virulence of this disease?
So the SARS-2 virus which causes COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, like flu, like cold viruses and and others. We know that during the winter months this tends to transmit more easily, and there's a range of factors related to that. One the factors we have dealt with in terms of the social distancing measures, that's indeed us tending to congregate together inside in larger numbers during winter than we do during summer. And so that won't be the case in this winter, and indeed some of our early surveillance in relation to the flu season, which started earlier this year because of the COVID-19 issue, is demonstrating that the influenza-like illness surveillance, this is a series of questions that is put to people in our Flutracking survey, and I would encourage people to join Flutracking, have a look in your search engine and you can sign up for a very quick 15 second survey every Monday asking you if you have been sick with flu like illness in the past week. That is demonstrating that actually it is decreasing since these social distancing measures have come in. And in fact, it is at the lowest level that it has been for some years at the moment. So that is one side. From the winter perspective, we may well show that we are having less problem there because of that social distancing. But on the other side, we do know that low humidity and low temperatures do tend to promote the infectiousness of respiratory viruses, and we suspect that this particular virus will be similar.
Just on social distancing rules, what is your advice to people in situations such as residential colleges or boarding houses, where it is not a family gathering per se, where people are co-living in the same space? Should they be socialising?
Well, I think they should be examining the way that they live in those circumstances, and I understand that many boarding houses around Australia have closed or are planning to close shortly in relation to the Easter holidays, and that is a good thing. I think, in terms of the boarding houses related to schools. Communal living is a challenge in these situations. We have seen already outbreaks in cruise ships, for example, also backpacker hostels, and so forth. Anywhere where there are larger numbers of people living in the same place, it is more challenging to have this social distancing. But there are very practical things that can be done in relation to increased hygiene and washing and so forth, as well as thinking about how to keep that physical distance. So coming into the kitchen at different times, for example, making sure surfaces are also clean between use, and the like. And I would say the same, as I was talking about my family in relation to the way that people are living, people are making these adjustments all the time, both in their workplaces and at home. A shout out to the hairdressers that are working through that as well, in terms of not so much social distancing, you can't do that when you are cutting someone's hair, but the hygiene measures, you know, I have seen are very practical, and well done to people taking those messages on.
The Health Minister has announced that the governments sourced 2000 courses of hydroxychloroquine – if I've pronounced that correctly – how will they be used, and is that safe to distribute across the country?
So hydroxychloroquine is an anti-malaria drug originally. It has been around a long time, at least 50 years. And it is used as a way of preventing malaria and indeed treating malaria. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of resistance in malaria, so it has not been used as much. It has some other uses in relation to arthritis and some other conditions. So it is important that hydroxychloroquine is not wasted. At the moment it is an experimental drug, and there are some clinical trials that have started in Australia and elsewhere in relation to this. Some early work done in France is positive, but very preliminary, so to answer your question specifically, those drugs are aimed to be part of controlled clinical trials, to make sure that this drug is safe to use and is effective. OK, thank you very much.