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Infectious disease expert Dale Fisher issues dire warning for months ahead

A world-leading infectious disease specialist has issued a dire warning about the weeks and months ahead for Australia, saying “this is just the beginning” of the coronavirus crisis.

Professor Dale Fisher is the chair of infection control at the National University Hospital and the National University of Singapore and chairs the outbreak response steering committee at the World Health Organisation.

The Australian-born scientist appeared on a special edition of 60 Minutes tonight and admitted that after an exceptionally busy few months, he sees “little light at the end of the tunnel”.

“We’re currently two or three months into something we haven’t seen before,” Professor Fisher said. “Various countries are at different stages of their own outbreak. But this is the beginning. This hasn’t started.”

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Australia – and the world – face a long, uncertain and potentially deadly several months ahead, he warned. And there’s only one real hope in limiting the number of fatalities.

“Really, we’re in a holding pattern until we can get a vaccine or a treatment,” Professor Fisher said. “Every country really just has to minimise the effect – contain the spread and try and keep the curve underneath the capacity of the health system.”

Reducing the rapid rate of infection and limit the stress placed on Australia’s hospital system, he said. If the country can manage to do that, the mortality rate for coronavirus can be capped at around one per cent or less.

“If you get overwhelmed, then you’re up at six or seven per cent, like Italy, making dreadful decisions about who can have the scarce resources.”

Italy is now in total lockdown after several days of significant jumps in its confirmed cases of coronavirus and a mounting death toll. At least 4825 people have now died.

Health authorities in the European nation were forced to prioritise intensive care services because doctors couldn’t treat everybody.

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Greg Kelly, an intensive care specialist, also spoke to 60 Minutes and shared his fears that our healthcare system isn’t prepared to cope.

“The behaviour of the virus around the world has been that it has increased or doubled every three to five days in most countries before strict social distancing measures have been put in place,” Dr Kelly told the program.

That’s where Australia’s rate of infection currently stands, despite a ramped-up response that put restrictions on outdoor and indoor gatherings. On that current trajectory, Dr Kelly said Australia could have around 12,000 cases in two weeks’ time.

“We have enough ventilators in Australia for our normal needs,” Dr Kelly said.

“We have around 2000 to 2500 intensive care beds and ventilators in Australia. The problem is that the surge of critically ill COVID-19 patients would overwhelm even the best health system.”

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Australia stands on the brink of a nationwide shutdown of all non-essential services, with New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT preparing to close everything except the bare necessary – meaning supermarkets, healthcare facilities and pharmacies.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday announced the latest strict social distancing measures on non-essential gatherings, but the message fell mostly on deaf ears. On Sunday night, he expanded those measures to order the closure of clubs, pubs, cinemas and other places where people gather.

Images of a packed Bondi Beach, as well as overflowing restaurants and bars, horrified healthcare experts.

“Sometimes the country’s greatest strength can at times be its weakness,” Professor Fisher said, referring to the quintessential “she’ll be right” Aussie spirit.

“But you know, Australia has been saying it’s the Lucky Country, right? It’s been protected from a lot of these types of things. It’s not seen SARS or MERS, so I can understand the public having some problems grasping it.

“I think that what I would say is, we need to act like this is a crisis before it feels like a crisis. And that is one of the opportunities where you really can save someone else’s life.”

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