1 April 2020

UPDATED: Ruby Princess link as COVID-19 cases rise and private hospitals enlisted

| Genevieve Jacobs
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UPDATED 4:00 pm, 31 March: ACT Health has announced three new ACT cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, and has confirmed that the ACT’s first COVID-19 related death was connected with the Ruby Princess cruise ship.

“While for privacy reasons ACT Health limits the amount of information about individuals, at the request of the family we can confirm that the individual announced yesterday as the ACT’s first death had contracted COVID-19 on the Ruby Princess cruise ship,” ACT Health said in a statement.

The new cases consist of two males and one female, aged between 27 and 57. All three new cases are linked to overseas travel, including on cruise ships.

However, after further testing, one of the ACT patients under investigation has now been determined not to have COVID-19. That person has, therefore, been removed from the ACT’s confirmed case total, which now stands at 80.

Speaking at this afternoon’s press conference, Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman said the initial test had been indeterminate. The person had been confirmed as a precaution so that contact tracing and infection control could take place, but further investigation had established that the patient was not infected with the virus.

One other case is still under investigation by ACT Health, which says that there remains no confirmed evidence of community transmission in the ACT.

Ruby Princess

The Ruby Princess has been linked with hundreds of Australian COVID 19 diagnoses. Photo: file.

Dr Coleman said while the number of new cases has been quite low in recent days, “this doesn’t mean we are in the clear. A temporary drop in cases is not unexpected as we see less people returning from overseas, however, we are expecting some more cases”.

“We are in a very good position in Canberra at the moment, but it’s critically important that we continue with [social distancing] measures. There is time for us to practise and get it right,” she said.

“The more we do, the more capable we are of getting the best outcomes. But I do want to thank you all for your efforts in slowing the spread of this disease.”

Dr Coleman said that overseas visitors had now all returned home and that new diagnoses were, for now, limited to close contacts of those people, “but it is not possible to keep this completely suppressed and that it will go away. At some stage, we will see new cases come on board not related to overseas travel”.

“This is one reason why I remind the community that we will end up as other jurisdictions have at other points in time. Please be aware this will happen,” she said.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said that the ACT would follow National Cabinet’s “very strong guidance that people should stay at home” but for now, would not put into practice the enforcement regime in NSW where there is evidence of community transmission.

While the ACT will line up with NSW by dramatically increasing penalties for people who do not follow social distancing and quarantine regulations to slow the spread of COVID-19, Ms Stephen-Smith said the first phase in the ACT will be about education and warnings before on-the-spot fines are imposed.

There is, however, provision for larger fines if there are “egregious breaches” of social distancing protocols.

ACT private hospitals will join the crisis response announced by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt today.

“We are working with the six largest hospitals in the ACT to develop a whole of territory undertaking of capacity”, Ms Stephen-Smith said.

As part of the response, private hospitals may undertake the most urgent elective surgery cases while public hospitals ready themselves for peak COVID-19 infection. Day clinics have also been contacted regarding their equipment and possible staffing resources.

Ms Stephen-Smith said that local hospital staff were being trained on how to manage PPE resources, but said that any cleaning and re-use was within normal processes and did not indicate shortages.

“Some PPE can be cleaned and re-used, some cannot be,” she said. “Staff are being given instructions about this. At this point in time, we have sufficient PPE across systems but like all jurisdictions, we are keeping a very close eye on this.”

Additional human resources are also being identified among ANU Masters students in epidemiology and in government departments where medically trained staff can be released in a staged approach.

There are currently six (6) COVID-19 patients in Canberra hospitals. The rest are isolating at home with ACT Health support. Three patients have recovered completely from the virus and have been released from self-isolation.

The ACT Government has established a new dedicated COVID-19 website for all information about the health and economic response to the pandemic in the ACT. For further information, visit www.covid19.act.gov.au.

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