The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
2 August 2021
Topics: COVID-19 vaccination rollout; Queensland cases; Delta variant; Phase 1B;
Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to the weekly briefing. I’m joined by the Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd, and we’ll address issues in relation to progress on the vaccine rollout, issues with regards to the epidemiology, and in particular the latest developments in Queensland and some support through a new Commonwealth hotspot and provision of PPE.
And also the latest advice of ATAGI and the extension of the vaccination program to immuno-compromised and children with underlying medical conditions between the ages of 12 and 15, as well as Indigenous and remote children.
If I may, I want to start by thanking Australians. This last week has seen a record vaccination week; 1.18 million Australians, or, to be precise, 1,182,446 Australians came forward to be vaccinated over the course of the last week.
To put it in context, in the week of 14 June, there were 720,000 Australians, and every week since then there have been significant numbers that have grown. And, in particular, in the last week, there was an increase of almost 100,000.
I think, as Michael mentioned yesterday, 4.5 million people came forwards in July. This takes us to almost 12.4 million vaccinations in Australia. And, significantly, that includes now almost 4 million who are fully vaccinated, and 41 per cent of the population who have had a first dose. So, important developments.
And perhaps just as significantly for the over 50s, it’s now 65.6 percent of the population. For the over 60s, 72.7 percent of the population. And for the over 70s, a very heartening 79.1 percent.
But in particular, as we see from the outbreak in Sydney, if you are older and unvaccinated, and you catch COVID, the risks of serious illness or hospitalisation, or death, are very real, and all too tragic, as we have seen. So, if it’s your mum, if it’s your dad, if you’re over 70 yourself, if it’s your grandma or your grandad, please urge everybody that you know in that group to come forward. And if they need help to come forward to be vaccinated, please assist.
Now, more generally, I do want to indicate the utilisation rate for the week. We are now at 90 per cent nationally, 84 per cent from GPs, 99 per cent through the states and territories. This week, there will be 1.4 million doses made available across the commonwealth, state and general practice outlets.
And, indeed, in the primary care space, there will be over 5700 points of presence. I think 5734. And that includes over 5150 GPs, and that will grow by 190 in the coming two weeks. And of those, over 1520 are distributing Pfizer. And we’re now at 288 pharmacies, and that will grow to 700 over the coming two weeks.
Michael will, in more detail, address the information coming out of AHPPC with regards to Queensland, but he has made the decision to declare a Commonwealth hotspot for parts of Queensland. As a consequence, we have made the decision to release significant stockpiles from the National Medical Stockpile.
There will be 725,000 surgical masks and 725,000 N95s which will be made available to health practitioners through the five primary health networks of Brisbane North and South, Central Queensland, the Gold Coast, and the Darling Downs. And the 175,000 each of gloves, gowns, and goggles. So, these will be made available through the Primary Health Networks to our medical practitioners.
Finally, I want to mention that in relation to the advice from ATAGI, and Michael will go into this in more detail, there’s updated advice with regards to the Delta strain. But there’s also updated medical advice in relation to Pfizer, in particular, to note that for 12-year-olds to 15-year-olds, as foreshadowed just over a week ago, the Pfizer vaccine will now be made available on ATAGI’s advice for immuno-compromised children, or children with underlying medical conditions, Indigenous children, and children in remote communities aged 12 to 15.
This is set to commence as of 9 August. Although, if any GP wishes to administer before then, then it is free for them, or states, to do so. But that’s the commencement of that program. They will be included under Phase 1B, which means that they will have access as part of that program going forward. It includes approximately 220,000 children who will be given access now as a consequence of that decision.
I’ll turn to Michael Kidd and then happy to take questions after that.
Thank you, Minister. So we’ve seen a total of 229 confirmed cases reported nationally. These have included seven people with COVID-19 acquired overseas, and those people are in hotel quarantine. But 222 locally acquired cases. 207 of those have been in New South Wales, 13 in Queensland, two in Victoria. The two people in Victoria have both been in isolation throughout their infectious period.
New South Wales sadly has notified of a further death related to COVID-19, a man in his 90s from South-West Sydney who passed away yesterday at the Liverpool Hospital. We are advised that he had received one dose of AstraZeneca vaccine. And our condolences to his family.
We have, as you know, an outbreak occurring in the Wyoming Residential Aged Care facility in Summerhill, in Sydney. We’re advised that 18 residents of that residential aged care facility have now been diagnosed as positive for COVID-19.
We’re also advised that seven of those resident were not vaccinated, but 11 have been vaccinated. All of those resident have either been moved or are being moved to hospital in order to optimise their care, but also to reduce the risk of further transmission to other residents at that facility.
Clearly, we’re concerned about the evolving situation in the Southeast of Queensland. Today, Queensland has announced another 13 new locally acquired cases. They’re all associated with the cluster that was first detected in a high school student on 29 July.
Although, whole genome sequencing has linked this case to two passengers who arrived in Australia on 29 June, it’s still unknown how the high school student became infected, and this is concerning.
Cases have been infectious while in the community, and there are a number of exposure sites on the Queensland Health website, and this continues to grow. And accordingly, we have therefore made a decision, and I have extended the Commonwealth hot spot until 11.59 pm on Sunday, 8 August. And we’ll do a further review on or before that date.
I remind everybody in the 11 effected local government areas and Southeast Queensland of the increased risk of the highly transmissible Delta variant, and request that you continue to follow the instructions of Queensland Health.
ATAGI has, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, has issued new advice regarding COVID-19 vaccines in the setting of transmission of the Delta variant of concern. What we’re seeing is increased transmissibility and also likely increased severity of disease being caused by this Delta variant; and this underscores the importance and the immediate benefits of achieving the highest possible COVID-19 vaccination uptake, especially in areas of outbreaks.
Achieving high levels of first dose vaccine coverage as soon as possible, and especially among those most likely to transmit COVID-19, or to develop severe disease from COVID-19, is an important complement to the broader public health measures which are in place.
We of course reinforce that two doses of the vaccines are required for long lasting protection. So anyone who receives the first dose should of course be making a booking to receive their second dose as well.
ATAGI has reaffirmed their previous advice that in a large outbreak, the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca are greater than the risk of the rare side effects occurring for all age groups. And ATAGI has reiterated that all adults in Greater Sydney should consider the benefits of either protection with the AstraZeneca vaccine rather than waiting for alternative vaccines to become available.
ATAGI has also recommended a reduction of the interval of receiving the two doses from 12 weeks down, down to four to eight weeks, for people receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, so that we can get maximal protection earlier for people in those outbreak areas.
Finally, ATAGI has noted the significant risk that the Delta variant poses to our COVID-19 control, and therefore continues to recommend vaccination for all adult Australians. There is an increasing risk of outbreaks in places other than Greater Sydney, and therefore the benefits and the risks may change in other parts of the country as well.
But people considering vaccination should be informed of the changes in benefits and risks, and be asked to provide appropriate informed consent.
People who receive the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine should be aware of the symptoms of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome and when they should seek prompt medical attention. Because as we know, early detection of this syndrome can mean that people can get treatment and this can, of course, improve outcomes.
Thank you, Minister.
Are you concerned that3 a lot of the cases in Queensland are children, in some cases young children? Does that show us that Delta variant is more dangerous among children, perhaps in a more similar rate to what it is among adults? And will this have to change the way that we look at outbreaks in the future?
Thank you. So, you’re quite right. The current outbreak in Queensland is linked to a number of schools, and so we have seen school aged children who’ve been diagnosed positive over the last few days.
What we’re also seeing, and particularly in Sydney, is a larger number of young adults who’ve been infected with COVID-19 being hospitalised, and increased numbers ending up in the intensive care units.
And certainly, at much higher levels than we saw during, for example, the very serious outbreak in Victoria at this time last year. So yes, we’re very concerned about the severity of this Delta outbreak. It’s why it’s so important that we bring these outbreaks under control.
Hang on, I’ll start and work my way around. Yes.
This morning, General Frewen talked about possibly adapting the rollout strategy to key transmissibility groups, including young adults as Professor Kidd just mentioned. Can you give us any detail on that? What that might look at?
Sure. So, I think the Doherty modelling was very clear and it is intended that it’s being finalised and then released in the coming days. So I think it is an important point to indicate a number of you have asked offline whether that will be released, and the answer is yes. That was agreed by National Cabinet and then, all the parties are working on that.
So, in terms of the example of that, the announcement on Pfizer for 12 to 15 today is precisely an indication of that focus. So ATAGI has considered that group, they’ve considered it in terms of two things: one is in terms of the findings of the TGA and the decision of the TGA to open up the 12 to 15 age group, and then secondly, they’ve considered it in terms of the relative risk.
So, we’ll continue to follow the medical advice and today is an example of exactly that.
Following on from Greg’s question, actually, given that there are cases in high school students, it’s much more transmissible among younger people, why has ATAGI decided that only young people with underlying health conditions should go and get the Pfizer vaccine?
Why not just the entire of that age group?
So, on the medical side of it, I’ll let Professor Kidd respond, but ATAGI did signal that they would proceed in two phases right from the outset. That they would, they identified that there was a significantly greater risk for those that are immuno-compromised or with underlying medical conditions and so, they’ve made that assessment.
They’re also reviewing international evidence with regards to the broader age group from 12 to 15, and they haven’t rejected that, but they’ve signalled that that would be approximately, four to six weeks from now. I can’t speak for them.
[Inaudible] we’ve seen lots of outbreaks [inaudible] Surely it makes sense to get these high school students vaccinated as soon as possible?
Look. I respect the views, but equally, I respect both the medical process and the outcome.
So what they have signalled – so for those who aren’t aware, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, the medical expert panel that advises on the application of particular vaccines and the cohorts and circumstances under which they would be applied – has said that there will be a two stage process.
One, the immuno-compromised and the other groups that we’ve identified, Indigenous Australians and remote Australians between 12 and 15; Two, they will do an assessment, looking at international data with an expectation that over the period in late August or possibly early September.
It’s in their hands – they’ll come back with advice on the general population. But the early indications are certainly that they were leaning towards that decision, but they did want to see the international advice.
Thank you, Minister. So, the children who are being- are offered vaccination now, when this program starts are the children who are at the greatest risk. So there’s been a prioritisation with those 220,000 children.
I just wanted to reiterate that this includes children with specified medical conditions that increase their risk of sever disease if they get infected with COVID-19, and that includes children with severe asthma, with diabetes, with obesity, with cardiac and circulatory congenital abnormalities, with neurodevelopmental disorders, with epilepsy, and with trisomy 21, as well as children who are immuno-compromised, and, of course, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as the Minister has mentioned, and those children living in remote communities.
But you said doubt about whether the Delta variant is more infectious among adults than children, there’s doubt about that.
Could it be equally as infectious?
So we are seeing- what we’re seeing, both in Australia and overseas, is increased transmissibility among young adults. We’re not seeing that among children, but obviously, we are following very closely what’s happening overseas. We’ve only got small numbers of children who’ve been infected with COVID-19 in Australia.
Minister Hunt, how was it possible that an aged-care worker in Sydney worked across three facilities while infectious, given this issue was dealt with well over a year ago in terms of regulation? Who’s responsible for that failure? And is it time to have surveillance testing of our aged-care staff in these hotspot areas?
So, come to the last and then I’ll get back to the specific question. So in terms of the surveillance testing, we are conducting a trial of rapid antigen testing and we’re looking to expand that. It’s something that we’re very supportive of.
We have been following the medical advice, but there is a- the rapid antigen test, which is currently- a rapid antigen test clinical trial which is currently going on. And we’re looking to expand that very shortly, to a number of facilities.
Indeed, I’d like to see it expanded more broadly, subject to the medical outcome. So I do think that’s right.
That is something which is coming, and I was working with Professor Skerritt from the TGA just this morning on this. And his view is that what we are likely to see in Australia is an expansion of rapid antigen testing, both in terms of the sites, initially under supervision, and then the possibility is there of it moving to unsupervised.
At this stage, all the medical advice we’ve received is that they want to see it supervised as coming through AHPPC – so the advisory panel of chief health officers and chief medical officers. So, that option for greater rapid antigen testing is expected to evolve and expand over the coming months in Australia. Possibly to pharmacies for point of care, over and above what we’re seeing with doctors and others, but we want to make sure that every possible positive case is detected, and then the possibility remains over the coming months for self-diagnosis. And that is not off the table at all.
With regards to the particular facility, my understanding in relation to the Wyoming facility is that 49 out of 61 residents were vaccinated. I think 47 were fully vaccinated. That facility had had, I’ll come to the staff, that facility had had four clinics and all residents had been offered vaccination.
And so it is a strong reminder to those who have friends and family of loved ones in aged care that we encourage everybody to accept vaccination, that it is a fundamentally important protection. And we know that it has been protecting older Australians in aged-care.
In relation to the nurse, I understand this was an agency nurse and by definition, the agency nurses are outside of that because they are providing surge workforce capability. And so I don’t have more details than that at this stage.
But the surge workforce capability has always been the element where they would be able to provide that inreach to different facilities through the agencies where they were required. That’s the latest I have. I don’t have more detail on that individual. We’re seeking that detail.
Surely, that’s a big loophole, though, if you could have agency nurses going into three different facilities, whereas the workers?
Well, I think that one of the things that everybody is focussed on is to make sure that we have surge capability and the very nature of that capability is that people can attend, whether it was what we were doing with AUSMAT, what we’re doing with surge capability. I know that the facility more generally has, I think, 64 per cent vaccination rate amongst their staff and 58 per cent of those are first vaccinated.
I have a couple of vaccine questions. First one, Dr Jeannette Young has again undermined AstraZeneca today, saying that people under 60 shouldn’t get it. What do you think of that?
And also, a nurse has been fired for administering Pfizer to somebody who, I guess, isn’t able to get it at the moment, but the Pfizer would’ve just gone in the bin. Do you think that that’s wrong, that she’s been fired for doing that?
So I don’t know the circumstances of that particular case. I apologise. But the general principle we have had is to encourage all doses to be used. And that’s been widely view, that’s been a principle which has been applied in general practices in Commonwealth vaccination clinics, and we’ve encouraged the same with the states. So I don’t have any individual details on that.
Then in terms of Queensland, our message is that the ATAGI advice has been reframed and it is if you are over 60, AstraZeneca is the preferred vaccine. If you are under 60, it is something in a hotspot, which again, Michael has set out in an outbreak area, that people should strongly consider. And more broadly than that, anybody can consult their doctor and to seek advice.
Thanks, Minister. That’s correct. So the ATAGI advice remains that Pfizer is the preferred vaccine for those under 60, but the AstraZeneca vaccine is available to anyone over the age of 18. But we are wanting people to have a discussion with their trusted medical practitioner, general practitioner and to provide informed consent before they receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Is Queensland a large outbreak that allows extra use of AstraZeneca currently?
What we have is the eleven local government areas in south east Queensland are a Commonwealth hotspot and therefore, this meets the definition of a significant outbreak.
Minister Hunt, given the outbreak in Queensland at the moment, will the Commonwealth be releasing any further AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines to help deal with that?
And if I can ask of Dr Kidd, given the ATAGI advice and the fact that Queensland is now an outbreak, is it unhelpful and potentially contributing to vaccine hesitancy if the Chief Health Officer of that state is saying, just stick to AstraZeneca if you’re over 60?
Sure. Let me respond first. So in terms of Queensland, just to give you the figures. With regards to Queensland, we have provided that Queensland Health so far, 224,000 AstraZeneca doses. I don’t believe there are any orders placed for AstraZeneca by Queensland Health in July. We have provided 947,640 doses to Queensland Health.
I note that there was a comment by one of the government members, I think the Deputy Premier, with regards to enough doses to cover all of their health workers. The advice we have is there are about 157,000 registered health care workers in Queensland. We’ve provided, therefore, over 1.17 million doses just to Queensland Health. And then we are increasing this month from, we’re increasing doses for primary care from 211 to 414,000 doses of Pfizer over the course of the month.
So what you’re seeing in primary care is a doubling. And then for Queensland Government, we’re going from about 348,000 to 409,000 doses. So significant increases of Pfizer. And I can make the offer that 150,000 AstraZeneca could be provided immediately to Queensland Health if they seek it.
Is it unusual that they have not made an order for more AstraZeneca during the month of July?
Well, let me read the figures. So, in March, there were orders of 95,000 AstraZeneca for Queensland Health; in April, 60,000; in May, there was only 1000; in June, there were 67,000; and in July, there are no known orders that I have before me.
And does that happen in other states, not requesting AstraZeneca now?
We’re seeing significant distributions. I don’t have all of the state figures in front of me, but we’re seeing significant distributions. Victoria, for example, has ordered and administered over 400,000 AstraZeneca just in their state clinics so far.
Minister Hunt, on the current rate of vaccinations, when do you think Australia will reach Phase B? And is the goal of Christmas achievable?
So, our goal at this point in time, with regards to a time horizon, is to ensure that every Australian who seeks to be vaccinated has access this year. We are on track to achieve that goal.
And then in terms of the 70 and 80 per cent targets, that’s a challenge for all of us, so we’re not putting a time frame on that. I absolutely respect and understand the question, but the goal that we’re setting is to ensure that every Australian who seeks to be vaccinated can be vaccinated this year with.
[Inaudible] 70 per cent this year.
Well, what I’m saying is that, slightly different, with great respect. He has certainly set out those things. I’m not limiting it. So there’s no difference here, with great respect, Greg.
I think that our goal is to ensure every Australian who can be vaccinated is vaccinated this year so we can meet all of the demand that Australians have this year on the current vaccination supplies and on the rollout. So it could not just be met but it could well be exceeded.
I guess a related one. You’ve talked and the PM’s talked for a while about when we get to potentially Phase B and Phase C, you will start talking about hospitalisations and deaths rather than focusing on case numbers as the main I guess, metric. Seventy per cent of eligible adults on the current numbers is about 56 per cent of the current total population.
If we’re looking at that number and we’re taking off the crucial restriction that we’re seeing in Phase B and Phase C, what level of cases, hospitalisations, deaths, will Australia see when we get to Phase B and Phase C?
Sure. Look, I won’t.
Does the modelling show that?
The Doherty modelling will cover a variety of scenarios, and I’ll leave that for when that’s ready.
But our goal here is to ensure everybody who seeks to be vaccinated is vaccinated this year. The number is unlimited. So, in the sense that we have the vaccines.
He was very hopeful it could get to 70 per cent, and then he noted that Britain had got [inaudible] he said he believed it could be done.
I absolutely agree. So there’s not a question as to whether we can. As to where the final number is and the timing, that will be determined. But can we supply all Australians on current vaccine supplies and current distribution patterns? Yes.
I’ve got to say this. The 1.18 million that we did in the last week was more than we had been expecting to have done at this time of year.
So we are now distributing at a faster rate than we had expected in July. Obviously, because of the earlier ATAGI advice and the reduction in the preferred pool from just over 20 million to 5.5 million people, that did have an impact. And we’ve acknowledged and accepted that.
But what we’re seeing is that the GP network, supported by the state system, supported by the pharmacies, can provide huge distribution so long as there’s the demand. And Australians are showing there’s the demand.
Minister, once we do get to 70 or 80 percent for the vaccination rates, do you expect that we will continue to have low-level and ongoing restrictions or measures in place? And what exactly would they be? Would it be density limits at certain events or venues or.
Sure. So, the Prime Minister did set that out on Friday, that during the Phase B or the second phase, there could be restrictions there. They will now be worked through with the states and territories, both collectively and individually.
What we wanted to do was to set out the clear milestones and then the particular details. We’re learning from around the world, and we’re seeing what works.
We’re fortunate – and I do want to put this in place. It’s difficult and challenging, but we’re seeing cases around the world, well over 500,000 a day on most days, agonisingly, and, you know, over 8000 lives lost on most days, tragically.
And so the world is learning about the Delta variant. And that’s why we’ve taken a more aggressive approach now through National Cabinet on early lockdowns. That is one of the learnings which we’ve had not just from Australia but from abroad. But as the vaccination numbers increase, that gives more freedom, and the states and territories will both collectively and individually work through with us the range of freedoms.
But our goal is to progressively open as much as possible, as quickly as possible, but starting with, of course, the greater movements and freedoms for those that have been fully vaccinated. I’ll take one more over here.
I’ll take one more.
Your LNP colleague in Queensland, Senator Rennick, in the past two weeks has used Facebook to describe vaccines as experimental gene therapies with plummeting efficacy. He’s questioned the accuracy of PCR tests. He’s talked about: you can’t protect the weak by destroying the strong, as in young people. And he’s posted information that Facebook’s independent fact checkers have determined to be false information.
How dangerous is this? And have you counselled your colleague Senator Rennick about this matter?
Sure. So, look, the first thing is I apologise, I haven’t seen all of those. I’ve been aware of one of them in relation to Ivermectin, and I provided the Government information and information and advice. The rest, I’ll go back and seek the original sources. I find that that’s the best way to do it.
Our view is very clear – that we set out the official medical advice, and we urge everybody to stick with the facts, to stick with the medical advice.
I’ll just finish with this. I want to thank everybody. A record number of vaccinations in the last week, but the task has been set. It’s the opportunity for each Australian and every Australian to help contribute to protecting themselves and all others.
And if you haven’t been vaccinated and are eligible, please come forward. If you’re due for your second vaccination, please come forward. And if you’re in an older age group or you have friends and family in an older age group who haven’t been vaccinated, please encourage them to come forward. It can save their lives.