As Australians are urged to stop shaking hands to reduce the coronavirus risk, authorities are now considering more extreme prevention measures, including a “last resort” of forcibly detaining patients.
- Coronavirus patients could be detained against their will, but the Attorney-General says that would be a last resort
- Experts say more Australian cases of the virus will be diagnosed, but a mass outbreak is still avoidable
- People are being urged to replace handshakes with backslaps, and wash their hands regularly
Attorney-General Christian Porter says it is “very likely” that rarely used biosecurity laws will be invoked, after it was revealed Australia had recorded its first cases of human-to-human transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
A meeting of the nation’s chief health officers today is also considering additional “social distancing” restrictions.
Under biosecurity laws introduced in 2015, the Government has the power to forcibly detain and decontaminate people with the virus, and prevent people from attending mass gatherings.
Mr Porter said it was “very likely these laws will get used on a larger scale”.
“It’s very likely Australians will encounter practices and instructions and circumstances that they have not had to encounter before,” he told RN Breakfast.
“They will be, in some instances, strange and foreign to many Australians. But they will become very important, I suspect, over the next couple of months.”
People could face penalties for failing to abide by an order, Mr Porter said.
“Detention can occur under the act, but it is rare and very much a last resort.”
NSW cases contracted locally
Until yesterday, the only people diagnosed with the virus in Australia were those who had contracted it in other countries.
One of those infected locally is a 53-year-old doctor from Sydney’s west. It is not known how he contracted the virus.
The other is a 41-year-old Sydney woman, who is believed to have caught the virus from her brother after he returned from Iran. She, and another relative, had already been quarantined in Sydney’s Westmead Hospital.
Infectious diseases expert Robert Booy, from the University of Sydney, said the news was concerning but not unexpected.
“What it means is that the next phase [of the outbreak] is starting, when ordinary Australian people who haven’t travelled anywhere can catch the infection and transmit it to members of their family and community,” he said.
“We’re going to get increasing cases. We’ve got the start of the epidemic now.”
Sport, entertainment could be stopped
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPCC) is meeting today to decide whether additional protection measures, such as bans on mass gatherings, will be introduced.
The AHPCC is made up of all state and territory chief health officers and is chaired by Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy.
The Government’s pandemic plan outlines possible measures, including bans on mass gatherings, closures of schools and childcare centres, and lockdowns on aged care homes.
The NSW Government has already ordered public schools to cancel any overseas trips planned for term one.
The Victorian Government has flagged the prospect of delaying elective surgery and other non-urgent medical treatment to deal with a possible influx of patients.
‘We shouldn’t be defeatist’
ANU infectious diseases expert Peter Collignon said more cases in Australia were now almost inevitable, but a massive outbreak could still be stopped.
“I think it’s likely that we’ll get more cases because Iran is a good example where you can have a lot of cases in the community, it’s not realised, and then people who come in contact with those people bring it back here and potentially spread it,” he said.
“But I don’t think it’s inevitable that we’ll have widespread, uncontrolled spread through the community.
“I don’t think we should be completely defeatist about it.”
Professor Booy said if Australians took sensible measures — such as avoiding handshakes and washing hands regularly — any epidemic could be slowed.
“What we’re hoping to do is to get to a state where the epidemic builds slowly rather than quickly,” he said.
“If it builds relatively slowly, it means our health services, our GPs, our emergency departments, our hospital wards, our intensive care units can all cope more easily and better with the workload.
“If there are fewer cases coming through, they’ll get better care, they’ll get a better outcome. But if we’re swamped with cases as a result of a lot of transmission, it’ll make it much harder on the health system and the quality of care will, as a result, go down.”
Raina Macintyre, who heads the biosecurity program at UNSW’s Kirby Institute, said Australia was yet to see the “sustained community transmission” that would cause major concern.
“When we talk about sustained community transmission, we’re talking about three generations of cases or more,” Professor Macintyre said.
“So you’ve got one person, say, who comes back from Iran or China or another country that’s having a lot of cases, and they infect one person or a few people, and then those people infect another bunch of people — that’s when you start to worry.”
NSW Health tracking down patients
NSW chief medical officer Kerry Chant said it was not known if the infected healthcare worker contracted the disease from a patient.
While not divulging his occupation, she said the man would have had contact with people aged over 65.
“Our key focus at the moment is to contact staff or patients that may have been close contacts of this gentleman, and do the precautionary things in accordance with the national guidelines,” she said.
He is in a stable condition in intensive care unit at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital.
Backslaps should replace handshakes: Minister
The new cases prompted the NSW Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, to urge people to pat each other on the back when greeting each other, instead of shaking hands.
“At a time when we have a virus that appears to be reasonably active in its endeavours to get into our community … it will be sensible not to be handshaking,” he said.
“I’m not going to say don’t kiss, but certainly you could be exercising a degree of care and caution with whom you choose to kiss.
“Other than that, I think we can live an entirely normal life here.”
Professor Macintyre said avoiding handshakes was sensible.
“And the other thing people can do is be meticulous about hand washing and hand hygiene,” she said.
“Before you eat, wash your hands properly, and when you come home, wash your hands.”
Doctors to don masks
Now that human-to-human transmission has occurred in Australia, experts say protection for healthcare workers may need to be stepped up.
“Increased cases means we are clearly going to be spending more time wearing masks,” the president of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Tony Bartone, said.
“We need to protect frontline staff. If doctors or healthcare workers are sick, then they are not able to fight the disease.
“Certainly at the GP level there are not enough supplies. We have stretched resources and we need to protect healthcare workers in the long run.”
Dr Chant said respiratory clinics were being set up at every hospital with an emergency department in the state.
Plans for similar clinics are in place in other states and territories across Australia.
The AMA and other health groups will meet with Federal Government representatives on Wednesday to discuss their needs.
John Skerritt, the head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, is reviewing all medication in the National Medical Stockpile to ensure supplies are adequate.
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