ACT Health has joined other health authorities in tightening the Australian response to the potentially deadly coronavirus outbreak, with any potential carriers being isolated before symptoms become apparent.
The new approach comes after a rare case in Germany where a Chinese visitor infected four other workers before the onset of any symptoms.
Australian and world health experts have said a person only becomes infectious after symptoms appear, although Chinese authorities have warned this may not be the case.
ACT Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman said Australian authorities have now responded with a highly precautionary approach.
She said anyone who has been in contact with any confirmed coronavirus cases should stay at home for 14 days following exposure.
Any return traveller who has been in the Hubei province, where the disease originated, must be isolated in their home for 14 days following the last time they were in Hubei. The only exception is when they are seeking individual medical care.
“The key message is for travellers returning from Hubei province, please be on the lookout for symptoms. If you become unwell with any influenza-like illness – a cold, fever, cough and runny nose – please get a medical assessment,” Dr Coleman said.
But she urged people who suspect they may have the virus to call ahead so doctors can make the right arrangements to ensure the illness cannot spread.
There has been no confirmed case of coronavirus in the ACT, nor are any under investigation. There are thousands worldwide, including seven in Australia– four in New South Wales, two in Victoria and one in Queensland.
The lastest death toll in Hubei sits at 170.
ACT Health has produced a series of factsheets for students at universities and CIT, schools and child care centres and parents.
Dr Coleman said ACT Health had been working with universities, where there are large numbers of Chinese students, and the Education Directorate on measures to provide as much information as possible and to contain any potential cases.
An email to school parents says additional soap dispensers have been installed in school toilet blocks, and teachers will discuss, demonstrate and ask children to practise proper hand washing when they return to school next week.
Australian Government National Health & Medical Research Council posters will be placed throughout schools to remind students.
Dr Coleman said hospitals, GPs and primary health providers had been briefed so they were able to quickly identify symptoms, arrange testing or decide whether a person was unwell enough to be admitted to hospital.
She said anyone presenting with symptoms would be given a mask and placed in isolation, with healthcare workers donning protective gear.
“I want to reassure the Canberra community that while this situation is evolving there is no need for alarm,” Dr Coleman said.
“Australia and the ACT are well prepared. We have plans and existing processes for managing infectious disease and we are implementing these, building on these as required, as we learn more about this virus,” she said.
The ANU, which has the biggest cohort of Chinese students in Canberra, said it was implementing a communication and support plan to ensure all students and staff are provided with accurate information about the coronavirus and what to do should they have symptoms.
“Quarantine and managing infectious diseases are the responsibility of national and state governments and we will be led by them, but we are ready to activate our infectious disease plans as required. These include the capacity to isolate infected individuals and minimise spread of disease through simple steps such as face masks and hand sanitisers,” it said in a statement.
The University of Canberra, which has about 800 Chinese students, said it had identified a handful of current and commencing students with a home location in the affected province.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Professor Geoff Crisp said UC had contacted them to see if they were in Australia or en route, alert them to the symptoms, ask them to isolate themselves and urge them to seek medical advice if they are unwell.
“We have an experienced Medical and Counselling team on-site at UC, and they are available via phone for anyone experiencing symptoms on (02) 6201 2351,” he said.
“In addition, we have placed posters throughout residences on cough and sneezing etiquette as well as a supply of masks at the Reception Desks to be proactive in helping to keep those on residences healthy.
“For students still in China, we are providing support based on their individual circumstances to support their studies.”
Australians caught up in the outbreak in China will be quarantined on Christmas Island.