Friday 05 February 2021 transcript

Last Updated: 25 Mar 2021 12:19pm

Good afternoon.

Look with me today I have obviously Dr Mark Veitch, I also have with me Kathrine Morgan-Wicks who is the Secretary of Health and Dale Webster Deputy Secretary of Health as well and they will be assisting us in terms of the discussion around the vaccination rollout.

Could I just begin by providing an update on current travel restrictions with Victoria, WA and New Zealand. I will then I want to provide some further information on entertainment venues and events and finally an update on our COVID-19 vaccine rollout strategy which Kathrine Morgan-Wicks will provide some detail as well.

Firstly, there's under our current border arrangements is it – Monty, how do you; welcome to your presser here too - yeah good to see you. Firstly, under our current border arrangements we need people who have recently arrived in Tasmania from Victoria, New Zealand and West Australia to continue to be vigilant in checking which areas and premises of those jurisdictions pose a risk as the information is continually being updated on our both the Tasmanian website but also on those jurisdictional websites as well; and ensure that they continue to monitor themselves for symptoms as well.

Now up until today, and obviously the West Australian government have had a bit to say this afternoon, and I'll say more about that in a moment, but up until today three large regions of Western Australia have been classified as high risk. The Perth metropolitan area, Peel and south west regions. In terms of New Zealand, nine premises in New Zealand remain high risk. Their travel bubble is open and it's been green lighted, but obviously there are still nine premises in New Zealand that remain high risk people can't travel from and obviously quarantine will apply. There are 14 premises in Victoria which have been declared high risk based on the movements of the recent COVID case as well.

Now, I just want to say at the start, anyone who's visited any of the high-risk premises listed at the specific dates and times should self-isolate immediately in their accommodation, call the public health hotline on 1-800-671-738 for further advice and management with by Public Health.

Now in terms of Victoria, over the past 48 hours in terms of the Victorian situation, Public Health have moved swiftly and proportionately to respond to the situation in Victoria involving a hotel worker that has tested positive to the more virulent United Kingdom strain. Pleasingly, this morning Victoria has announced that there have been no further new locally acquired cases identified in the past 48 hours since the announcement of the positive case.

Now, we'll continue to take a precautionary approach to responding to this latest case due to the highly transmissible nature of the strain identified and based on the updated update provided by Victoria today. The 14 premises will remain at high risk at the times the worker visited them. Anyone who has visited those premises at those times will not be permitted to travel to Tasmania. We believe that response continues to be appropriate for Victorians who are now in Tasmania or anyone that has travelled to Victoria, into Victoria, and has been there and then coming to Tasmania after the 29th of January. We obviously need you to continue to check the website and importantly we have been contacting anyone that has travelled. Four people who are now in Tasmania and arrived from Victoria after 29th of January have been identified as having been in those Victorian exposure locations. I can say pleasingly that all have tested negative to COVID, but remain in quarantine.

Now, in terms of Western Australia, again obviously the Premier has announced some positive news with that state - reporting no new local cases of COVID-19 up until 8pm last night. The lockdown in that state is due to end at 6pm this evening under its current form, however, the WA government has announced this afternoon some changes and restrictions in terms of the in terms of the Perth and Peel regions until the 14th of February. Whilst the south western region will return to pre-lockdown conditions, noting this latest advice from the WA government, we're currently reassessing our travel restrictions in terms of WA. And our Public Health officials at this time, obviously not Dr Veitch, but at this time our Public Health officials are meeting with AHPPC and once we have clarity from the local WA health officials, we'll announce any changes to our arrangements later today. But I think with the south western region returning to pre-lockdown conditions, I would be hopeful that we might see relaxation of our current standing there, but again that'll be a matter for public health and they'll be informed fully once AHPPC finishes in a short time.

Just want to provide some general travel advice, a reminder too for anyone traveling to and from Tasmania, or visiting our airports for any other reason, it's now a legal requirement to wear a face mask in publicly accessible areas and during flights including boarding and disembarking. Anyone aged 12 years or older must have their mask on when they leave their vehicle on arrival at the airport. This is an important measure in response to the increased risk posed by the emergence of the highly transmissible variants of COVID-19 and is a sensible approach that's one that's been taken right across the country in airports where there is a mixing of large numbers of people from a range of different locations. So I'd ask everyone to comply with this requirement and help us reduce the risk to you and your family and your friends. The airports are providing masks, they are accessible, but importantly, you know, I think for those of you that want to travel, I think it's important that you get used to having a mask in your back pocket. You know, let's be frank it's not the most onerous thing to ask someone to do. If you're going to travel, make sure that you've got a mask.

I want to speak briefly about entertainment events and venues. On the advice from Public Health we’ll be enabling more people to attend cinemas, concerts, theatres, and similar entertainment venues effective immediately. Increasing the number of people must be done carefully and safely and there are conditions. Assessment and approval of larger events or venue operations in accordance with the Events Framework is still required and so when I say immediately: subject to having a COVID Safety Plan in place. For an indoor event though, of more than 250 people, with fixed seating, in a venue like a theatre, the number of patrons permitted is now up to 75 percent of the fixed seating capacity. Importantly if filling 75 per cent of the seats means the density will be more than one person per two square metres, patrons and staff must wear a face mask unless they are exempt from wearing a mask for medical reasons. Some other states, New South Wales, have had this measure in place for some time. It will be strange for some, but if we want to have more people attending larger or having larger events in some of our smaller more boutique theatres, then it's important that we now wear a mask if we're going to go to 75 per cent.

There will be exceptions: performers and children under 12 years won't need to wear a mask. However, it's important to follow the advice of the venue conducting the performance. This is a question that gets asked all the time, people will be able to remove their masks to eat and drink, but generally the mask will need to be kept on for the duration of the event, while everyone is indoors and as they enter and leave the venue. This is importantly about making sure venues can maximise the numbers they can have at their performances but that we can all go to events safely and protect ourselves and the people around us. And again, do your very best. I know it's difficult to maintain the 1.5 metres or two steps between yourself and others when you can, especially in the foyer area, etc.

Now, it goes without saying, the last thing I will say on this is that don't go to an event if you have any flu-like symptoms at all; don't go to work; don't go to a party. Let's be sensible. We have done a really good job. Let's just continue to be vigilant don't let anyone introduce a level of complacency. We're in a good spot and let's do everything we can to stay there.

Now, I want to speak about the vaccination update and then I'll hand over to Kathrine Morgan-Wicks and then Dr Veitch. We’ll take any questions on the public health aspects that I just raised in terms of our other states or our current position.

We are preparing for what will be, without doubt, one of the biggest health logistical exercises in our country's history. Today we'll provide the first of what will become regular updates for the Tasmanian communities as we prepare to roll out vaccines to every Tasmanian who wants to be vaccinated over the next few months - and I would hope that that will be the vast majority of our population over the course of this year.

Many of you would already be familiar with Kathrine Morgan-Wicks, the Secretary of the Health Department, who will be joining me as we provide these ongoing updates. Kathrine will be assisted and supported by Dale Webster, who's in charge of the Tasmanian Vaccination Operations Centre, and is overseeing the team responsible for the vaccines rollout. Dale may take part in some of the updates as we provide them.

The government's been preparing for vaccine rollout now for some months including the activation of the Tasmanian Vaccination Emergency Operations Centre at TVEOC. The centre is working closely with the Australian government to plan the rollout across the Tasmanian community with thousands of people working on ensuring that it goes as smoothly as possible. I do want to make this point again clear, we want as many Tasmanians as possible to get vaccinated. The vaccine is free; it is safe; and it's available to everyone.

Any COVID-19 vaccine approved for use In Australia must pass the Australian government's Therapeutic Goods Administration and TGA's rigorous assessment and approval process to ensure it is effective and safe for use. The TGA announced provisional approval of the Pfizer vaccine on the 25th of January; today I'm pleased to advise that the roll out of this vaccine will begin in Tasmania later this month. The Commonwealth has advised that we will receive in total 2,340 doses a week for the first three weeks. This will then double to 4,680 doses a week from the fourth week as we start to deliver the second dose through March. The number of allocated doses is based on Tasmania's proportion of priority recipients nationally in the initial phase of the rollout. It's important that I stress that there will be a gradual start to the rollout as far as a stock will be limited over the first few weeks but it will pick up significantly near the end of March. And then as Tasmania starts to receive batches of AstraZeneca vaccine for delivery to the wider population.

As well sort of run through the priority groups and just explain some separation between ourselves and the Commonwealth: Pfizer vaccine will be provided in priority groups first these will be quarantined and border workers, hotel quarantine staff, frontline at-risk healthcare workers including care ambulance staff, hospital emergency department and ICU staff and COVID-19 testing staff. That's broadly the remit of the state and we will have 50 per cent of the vaccines available that come into the state. So 1,170 in that first week and then through that period until the doubling occurs and that will be for that cohort the Commonwealth is responsible for: workers and residents in aged care and residential disability care - both workers and residents - as well.

Now, they will have the other 50 per cent of those doses as we work our way through and Kath will have more to say on this as we work our way through.

These people in these priority groups will be contacted directly before the first batch arrives to arrange their two appointments at least 21 days apart for the two doses that will be required to give them the best protection. The priority groups will receive both their doses at Pfizer hubs which will be Tasmania's three major hospitals. That's in the case of the Tasmanian cohort in the Commonwealth responsibility - obviously for aged care and disability settings they will have arrangements there with the settings themselves.

The first doses will be delivered at the Royal Hobart Hospital and through the Australian government's program in residential aged care facilities during March. The program will move to the Launceston General Hospital and the North West Regional Hospital in Burnie.

We plan to have fully vaccinated Tasmania's priority populations by early April is our plan. We know the Tasmanians will have many questions about the vaccine. We'll seek to provide answers to them all as we build on the work of the Commonwealth's public awareness campaign to ensure Tasmanians do have access at their fingertips when they need it in terms of the information they require. At a state level this will include advertising a social media campaign providing detailed answers to key questions on the coronavirus website and working with key stakeholders such as GPs, pharmacists, nurses and healthcare staff to ensure that they are well informed and able to impart the necessary information as well. It also means working closely with Aboriginal groups, those in the multicultural community to ensure they are able to access information to meet the needs of their communities as well.

Before I ask Kathrine to update you on some of the work that's going on to support the rollout program, it's important for all Tasmanians to remember to keep practicing COVID safe behaviours. The vaccine is not a silver bullet and it's critical that we all continue to be COVID-safe. I've said so many times continue to socially distance, have good hand hygiene cover, your coughs and sneezes, if you're sick get tested, and importantly, do not do not go to work, do not go to a party, do not go to a function, do not go to a theatre if you have any symptoms at all let's be sensible let's protect ourselves protect our families and protect our communities.

I'll hand over to Kath now and then as I've said. After Kath's presentation, and if there are any questions for Kath, then Dr Veitch will be available to take questions as well in the public health response before I take general questions. Thank you

Thank you, Premier. As the Premier has outlined, the vaccine rollout is a massive undertaking and it's going to involve thousands of people. A large number of these will be those who administer the vaccine. We recently put out an Expressions of Interest for Registered Nurses interested in joining Tasmania's COVID-19 vaccination team and I'm pleased to say that the response was extraordinary. In the first 24 hours we had over 500 registrations and as of today we have 812. We have also been working closely with GPs and pharmacists who will play a significant role when the rollout program moves from the three hospitals and into the wider community.

Now, it's vital that Tasmania has appropriately qualified and trained workforce to support the COVID-19 vaccination rollout and I thank all professionals who have already put up their hands for this crucial undertaking. We will also do our best to ensure that there is no impact on existing health services as a result of staff being involved in the vaccination program.

Now, while the rollout will commence with our three hospital Pfizer hubs; as the rollout continues Tasmanians will be able to get vaccinated at other locations across the state and this will include Commonwealth approved GP respiratory clinics, some general practices, Aboriginal controlled Community Health Services, and our state-run vaccination clinics. These will be part of a comprehensive program to cover the state and will include rural and regional centres. Information on this part of the program, including planned locations and details of the booking system we’ll put in place, will be provided to Tasmanians nearer the time.

A key aspect of the rollout program will be the safe storage and distribution of these vaccines. You would be aware the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored and transported at minus 70 degrees centigrade. As Tasmania does not have such facilities, we are putting in place a transport and refrigeration process that will protect the vaccine once it arrives in the state later this month and this will enable the vaccine program to begin in late February as we await the arrival of the number of portable freezers from the commonwealth in early March. These are just two aspects of a much wider program to developing and implementing a plan for a successful rollout of the vaccine in Tasmania.

Now, this all takes considerable planning and I want to thank the many employees of the Department of Health who are working long into the night and across the weekends to prepare the groundwork for what will be a significant logistical exercise. I have no doubt there will be challenges along the way, and even a few surprises, but we have the team in place who are committed to doing everything that they can to deliver a successful COVID-19 vaccination plan for the Tasmanian community.

So I'm available for questions on vaccination.

What will the security arrangements be around those vaccination sites and around those vaccines? We have very secure arrangements for our pharmacies in hospitals which stems, even just for the logistical administration of S4 drugs, for example, but certainly with our vaccines we have the secure arrangements in place.

The Premier mentioned early April to vaccinate all the priority Tasmanians, but when do you expect all Tasmanians will be vaccinated? As the Prime Minister mentioned earlier this week, the target is for end of October in terms of a rollout for all Australians and we'll do our very best in Tasmania to do as soon as possible.

How are - just broadly speaking - how are staff feeling? How are Public Health staff feeling about what is going to be soon a very momentous and intense program? Well I suppose there's that feeling of positivity in relation to seeing a vaccination program commence and it adds another tool to the toolbelt in terms of dealing with COVID-19 in Tasmania. And certainly for our hospital staff they are very excited to see the details and information coming out and to commence participation in the program. Certainly for staff that are on the frontline, it is adding in terms of their their safety and protection for dealing with the cases as they come in.

I know you said you said quite early on there that it won't have an impact on the normal operations of health and the hospitals, could you go into a little bit more detail on how you'll logistically make sure of that? So in terms of the Expression of Interest that we've put out, and we have contacted all of our team of already existing authorised immunisers in the state, so we are you know very practiced and used to doing vaccination in Tasmania. And, in fact, we have a very high vaccination rate in Tasmania which we're proud of. In terms of those authorised immunisers they do have day jobs so we do need to make sure that we are not impacting whether they're an authorised immuniser, for example, in a pharmacy, in a GP practice, etc, but we do have authorised immunisers in our hospitals and we'll be working to make sure that we're not taking the entire, for example team, of ten that may start at the Royal Hobart out of one single area in our hospital and make sure that we are staggering that impact on our services.

Will your message be to people that are perhaps not quite sure about the vaccine or receiving your vaccine - what would you say? So the vaccine is safe; it is effective; it's free. In Tasmania we have a very good percentage of Tasmanians that participate in vaccination and I continue - you know – to encourage everyone to continue with that.

How will the vaccine reach King and Flinders Islands and residents on Cape Baron Island? So we'll be making arrangements in terms of the locations in rural and regional areas and we are working very closely with our district hospitals in terms of those arrangements.

How those are the Aboriginal and migrant communities you've been working with to deliver the vaccinations - can you just talk us through which groups and how you'll be engaging those groups that you've had those discussions with? So in terms of the Aboriginal controlled health organisations, we are working together with the commonwealth in relation to liaising with that and that's part of our vaccination emergency operations centre to ensure that we do have a targeted liaison with all of the groups in our community.

A team of immunisers, do you need across Australia? So as I said we've already had 812 registrations of interest to participate. It does depend on the volume of vaccine that's actually coming in now. I suspect at the moment we've got more immunisers that are ready and rearing to go and we do need to make sure that they're appropriately trained, so these are multi-dose vials it's a different type of immunisation and we need to make sure they're trained to do that.

Questions for Dr Veitch.

Did you want to make a general comment on the vaccination or are you happy for us to just throw our questions? I'm happy for you to ask any particular questions you have particularly around the public health aspects.

Yes, I actually just had a question on the border restrictions first before we went on to vaccinations. Why did we have I guess close the border to Perth entirely but not Melbourne and had a more localised approach with Melbourne when the circumstances were almost identical? That's a very reasonable question when we assess how extensively we impose border restrictions we look at a number of things. We look at where the cases are. We look at the risk to Tasmania from those cases and we also have a close look at the response of the jurisdictions and the assessment of risk from the jurisdictions. In the case of West Australia, you may recall, that as a consequence of that case and the concern of the West Australian health officials, there was a very substantial lockdown on Western Australia and I think the Tasmanians would expect us to approach the arrival of people from Tasmania in a way that's pretty commensurate with how it's being managed in their own state. So that's why we took a broader approach to West Australia. It's my hope that when I get back to my office from this meeting I can hear from AHPPC how West Australia has progressed and if we can relax that then we will do so and we'll be announcing any such changes later this afternoon. In the case of Victoria, you're correct, it was again a single person in a setting where in a quarantine setting. The message we heard from Victoria, which they've promulgated in the media from 10.30 at night a couple of nights ago, is that they were very encouraged by the information that they had from the case. They had a very careful tracking and tracing of where that person had been and so they were quite reasonably confident - I guess that would be a better word to say - that the risk in Victoria was confined to those exposure sites. So they knew specifically where that person had been and they also got onto it very early after that person had been there. That sort of information means that the wider risk in Victoria is almost certainly less and while Victoria did reimpose some social restrictions, they weren't nearly as extensive as the hard lockdown in Perth. So that's why ostensibly the circumstances might seem fairly similar, but we're able to use that information from the response and the evaluation of the home jurisdictions to be able to provide a more nuanced response here.

Turning back to the vaccine, is there an argument at all or is there a concern that once the vaccine starts rolling out at the end of this month that complacency might creep back in again in some parts of the community? That we might be seeing, you know, COVID risky behaviours if you like? The Premier, I think, has said a few minutes ago that, I think he used the term ‘this isn't a silver bullet’. The vaccine actually is very effective at preventing severe illness. Both vaccines, and we trust that the AstraZenica vaccine will soon be registered by the TGA for use, so we know that these vaccines from the available data prevent severe illness and hospitalisation and death in the people who receive them. The evidence for whether they prevent the spread of coronavirus is less clear-cut. There is some encouraging evidence that that we may well see that these vaccines when used widely in the population do interrupt transmission, but for the time being, we have to assume that despite a vaccination program, it may still be possible for people with minimal symptoms perhaps symptoms attenuated because they've had the vaccine; there may be a risk of them spreading coronavirus so it's absolutely uncertain that as the first few months of the vaccination program roll out that the population continues to vigilantly adhere to COVID-safe behaviours because we don't want to generate conditions that lead to disease spread at the same time as we're vaccinating people.

How are you, how are our testing numbers looking at the moment are you confident that there's no undetected cases out in the community? Testing numbers are not as good as I would like to see. We have for some weeks, I think I'd have to say, slumped to a level of really only testing around about 0.6 / 0.7 per thousand people per day in our state. We need really need to do roughly twice as much testing of that as that and I think until we're testing at around about five to six hundred people a day with symptoms we can't be as confident as we'd like to be that we're catching the prospect of a case early enough. I'd be confident that the testing we're doing would pick up a case within a few days, but we really want to be doing enough testing so that people who have coronavirus get picked up every day as soon as they get their symptoms. And in fact what we've heard from some of these even in the recent cases in mainland states several of those people had symptoms for a day or two before they actually sought, actually were tested. And in some instances, it in fact even went to a medical provider and didn't get tested when they first had their symptoms so it's very important that people get tested when they have any respiratory symptoms. It's very important that that clinicians who they see; who see someone in their in their surgery with symptoms that could be COVID get them tested.

The cases in recent cases in Brisbane, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth have all originated in from quarantine hotels. If we were to see a case emerge in Tasmania where would it likely come from? Where are you sort of looking specifically at the moment in terms of risk origin? I don't I think that's a very speculative what-if question. I think we have to suspect that cases of coronavirus could come where you don't expect them which is why we want the general population to go and get tested for coronavirus. We have in place and we're, in fact going, to increase the levels of testing. We have people working in quarantine settings, so I expect we'll have the risk there very substantially mitigated by early testing, but really it's dangerous to make an assumption that you know where the next case is coming from. It could be from a completely unexpected source: someone in the community who just has the disease and there was a case, I can't remember where, it was but some vigilant person might have been in Brisbane just picked up someone who attended an Emergency Department wasn't thought to fit into a high risk setting and that was how they identified their cases. So anyone with respiratory symptoms please go and get tested.

National Cabinet agreed to increase the number of international arrivals into the state; does that mean we'll be getting any more repatriation flights into Tasmania? No, look the current arrangements that we struck in the bilateral with Victoria remain in place. We'll receive over time up to 1,500 seasonal workers and Victoria will take our repat returning Aussies.

Is there any chance that we could increase the number of seasonal workers that we take because there has been some reporting that the fruit industry on the mainland is looking at a shortfall? Is there any chance that that number could increase in terms of the mainland or in terms of seasonal workers? Look we have limits in terms of what our hotel quarantine and obviously we need to maintain a level of availability for domestic quarantine as well and so I feel comfortable with the commitment that we've made to Victoria and at this stage I've given no consideration to taking in further seasonal workers. I do understand in terms of seasonal workers that the 150 Tongans that we currently have in quarantine will be working on our farms from Saturday; I think it is this week - from tomorrow - yes - and we will take our next group of seasonal workers towards the end of this month of which that will be a split flight there will be some seasonal workers for Tasmania and there will be the first component of the Victorian seasonal workers as well.

Just on the venue capacities - so in fact it's up to 75 per cent what has to happen for it to go back to 100 per cent? Well obviously we would need Public Health advice that it is safe to do so.

Just to follow up on the test the question I had about testing before, do you think that the lower numbers of testing because people aren't unwell or is it an element of complacency? It's true that at the moment we have quite low levels of influenza-like illness so that's undoubtedly contributing. People in the middle of the winter who are overtly unwell and feel really crook I think are more likely to go and get tested. So I think the message here is that we know now that there's lots of mild COVID disease so if people have just a runny nose or a sniffle or a few aches and pains a bit like they're getting the flu, they're the people we want to encourage to get out. They might not recognise that the symptoms can be so trivial really, but we really want to encourage people even with those minor upper respiratory tract infections to go and get tested so it's a long way of saying of answering you and saying, yes I think that the lack and the mildness of symptoms around at the moment is contributing. But other jurisdictions are managing to achieve higher rates of testing, so I would encourage Tasmania to actually get off the bottom of the testing rates nationally and to get out and get tested because it will give us information that gives us confidence that moving more freely in the community and relaxed measures is still safe. As testing drops away it creates a legitimate concern which is part of the first question you ask - are we missing a case - it creates legitimate concern that we could be missing a case so I think if we can get people out there getting tested it gives us confidence that some of the progress towards normality that we're all aiming for can continue. I might just mention it was in South Australia that that good pick up of an unsuspected case occurred from a smart doctor in an Emergency Department.

So just quickly what is the average daily testing number? I think you gave a percentage and so what's the actual average number? It's around about 350 to 400 I think is what we've seen in the last couple of weeks so I'd really we really need to get it up you know more between five and six hundred so we've got a way to go.

Is that the lowest it's been? It probably is the lowest it's been since - for many months – yes.

Is our testing rate the worst in the country? Our testing rate is the lowest in the country at the moment. It's a little bit difficult to compare jurisdiction to jurisdiction because some jurisdictions have quite large numbers of people from international quarantine going through their system and the testing of those people may boost their numbers but all the same I think that what we're seeing is the testing rate in Tasmania for the general population and that's not as high as it needs to be.