How Australia’s public health officials initially handled the coronavirus
Five months into the pandemic, at the request of 7NEWS Federal Parliament journalist Taylor Aiken, I took some time out to scroll back to January 2020 to explore how the Australian government officials handled the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
And, knowing what we know now about the pandemic, I was very impressed with the early statements and arrangements made by our public health managers.
As of today 7,150 people have tested positive to the coronavirus in Australia. 103 people have died. These numbers, on a per capita basis are relatively low when compared to other developed nations — particularly the Northern Hemisphere.
Stories of the coronavirus began to emerge from China as Australia was experiencing the end of a large fire emergency that saw 34 people die and 46 million acres destroyed by fire.
As Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy was about to hold his first coronavirus media update, one of three fire-busting storms hit New South Wales and Victoria.
On Tuesday 21st January 2020 there were reports that four people in China had died from the coronavirus, and a further 200 people had been infected.
Also, on the same day, Australia learnt that a man was being tested for the virus after he had flown to Brisbane from Wuhan where he had been with his family.
“There have been significant developments over the last 3 to 4 days”
Enter Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy. His timing, in hindsight, was perfect.
“There’s no need for alarm.”
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy speaks on Coronavirus crisis
Spread the message. I’m the Chief medical officer. Thank you for coming along this morning. It’s been a lot of media…
The professor arrived well prepared and well researched at his first media conference.
Key items mentioned by Professor Brendan Murphy at his first COVID-19 update:
- The virus had been detected in Wuhan “over a month ago”
- There were 220 cases around the world
- The “vast majority” of coronavirus cases were in Wuhan
- Three deaths were confirmed
- 6 cases had been detected in other parts of the world — Japan, South Korea and Thailand — “The great majority of those people have reported a travel history from Wuhan.”
- “We still believe that Wuhan remains the major source of this infection.”
At the same media briefing the Chief Medical Officer announced that Border Security and NSW Health representatives would screen each passenger as they began to arrive on flights from Wuhan to Sydney. He said there were three direct flights from Wuhan to Sydney each week.
Soon after the media conference Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeated the travel advisory for people travelling from Wuhan to Australia: “We will be raising the level of our travel advice for Wuhan City to level 2 — exercise a high degree of caution. I urge all Australians travelling to check the DFAT Smartraveller website for specific updates.”
“The World Health Organisation is still not recommending any travel advisory. We think as the evolving situation requires that there should be some specific advice — certainly about what you do in Wuhan and we are discussing with the Department (DFAT) whether we should change the advice more generally” — Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy speaking about the World Health Organisation’s response to the coronavirus on Tuesday 21st January 2020.
Of interest to people who are interested in news cycles, at the end of Brendan Murphy’s first coronavirus media conference, he took a couple of questions about the long term impacts of air pollution created by bushfire smoke. These would end up being his last questions about non-coronavirus health topics.
“Notifiable condition in New South Wales”
The person who would later become the face of the coronavirus in New South Wales, Dr Kerry Chant, was not at the first NSW Health media conference. Nor were the NSW Premier and Health Minister. Instead, Director of Health Protection for NSW Health, Doctor Jeremy McAnulty, spoke at the state’s first media briefing held on Wednesday 22nd January 2020.
“The flights from Wuhan are the ones that we’re focusing on…symptoms of the virus include a fever with respiratory symptoms such as a cough, sore throat or shortness of breath…it’s prudent to be cautious until we learn more about the situation” — Dr Jeremy McAnulty speaking on 22nd January 2020.
NSW Health Statement issued this statement on the same day: “As part of an international response, NSW Health will help Commonwealth Biosecurity staff at Sydney Airport monitor travellers returning from Wuhan, where there is an outbreak of novel human coronavirus. Chinese Health officials have confirmed more than 200 cases of the infection, including people who travelled from Wuhan to other parts of China and to at least four other countries in Asia. No cases of the novel coronavirus have been detected in NSW.”
Within a week of these initial public health statements, the Australian Government asked people to reconsider travel to China and announced plans for an evacuation flight would fly Australians out of Wuhan to Christmas Island to be quarantined. The situation began moving very quickly.
I’m predicting that history will treat kindly the early pro-active response made by Australia’s public health officials and our ministers.