The ACT’s health chiefs have two key messages for Canberrans worried about the impact of coronavirus: there is no need to stock up on goods such as toilet paper, and wash your hands with soap and water.
At a media briefing today (4 March), they were at pains to say that the ACT was well prepared to deal with coronavirus (or COVID-19), and as the number of cases rise across Australia, they expect to see the Territory’s first case in the next four to six weeks.
They acknowledged that the situation could worsen as the ACT headed into winter and flu cases increased, so they urged Canberrans to get a flu shot when they become available.
In the meantime, they said panic buying of the sort that cleaned out supermarket shelves of items such as toilet paper and rice at Woolworths at Cooleman Court in Weston on Tuesday night was unnecessary, and that basic hand hygiene used to limit flu transmission should be employed.
Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman said she understood people’s concern given what has happened in China but the situation in the ACT was likely to be very different and health services were ready to go if and when they need to.
“We strongly encourage people not to panic buy and hoard. We have enough of everything in Australia. What [Canberrans] need to do is make sure they have enough soap at home,” she said.
The relatively small number of arrivals from overseas in the ACT has bought the Territory some time to fully prepare and, at this stage, health authorities are looking to contain any cases in the community, away from hospitals.
Officials say anybody returning from China or Iran is being asked to self-quarantine at home.
Anybody with flu-like symptoms who has recently been overseas should see their GP or go to a Walk-in Centre, but first call ahead so staff can take precautions. If they test positive, patients will also be asked to self-quarantine at home. Their contacts in the previous 24 hours will also be tracked.
If necessary, NGOs and Community Services will be able to provide wrap-around support so people will not go without while quarantined at home.
A number of options were on the table to keep pressure of hospital emergency departments (ED), including in-home testing by paramedics, a telephone triage line, online support and in-home support.
Officials say that with information still coming in about the virus, health services need to be adaptive and flexible as the situation evolves.
If and when the number of cases escalates, the ACT’s hospitals will tap their surge capacity to assess and treat people.
Canberra Health Services CEO Bernadette McDonald said Calvary Public and the Canberra Hospital had tightened infectious disease protocols, there were negative pressure treatment rooms in place and staff had personal protective personal equipment.
She was also looking at a respiratory assessment clinic at Canberra Hospital away from the ED.
“We will maintain our normal services for as long as possible, dependent on the spread and how unwell people are. We will need to keep monitoring and looking at when is the time to surge up, when is the time that our core business starts to get impacted by this,” she said.
With all public hospitals across Australia already at capacity, any such surge will hit other services such as elective surgery, potentially swamp EDs and call on beds in other areas.
Health ministers have made it clear to the Commonwealth that the states and territories will likely need more support to get through.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the ACT was not considering any public control measures such as school closures or banning public gatherings.
“Quite frankly, if we get to a situation where we had very widespread COVID-19 in the community, there is limited usefulness in cancelling events and stopping people going out to community events because they are still going to be with people at work and school,” she said.
“It depends on the circumstances whether you shut down a single school; I’d be very surprised if we get to that.”
Chief Health Officers have the power to issue public health directions and there were also powers under the Emergencies Act if necessary but these are considered a last resort.
To stay up to date visit the ACT Health website.