“If somebody has misunderstood what quarantine means and they are out, then a reminder to be home is appropriate. If somebody is flagrantly flouting and putting especially vulnerable people, or people in a really concentrated place, at risk then that’s of another order.”
Dr Sutton has not ruled out setting up a single Victorian hospital as the exclusive centre for the coronavirus outbreak but said his “gut feeling” was that every major hospital in Melbourne would face a huge surge in infected patients as the crisis unfolds.
Dr Brett Sutton said health authorities had to be open to “all kinds of possibilities” as the number of Victorian cases climbed to 71.
“My gut feeling is that all hospitals will need to take patients,” he said.
“But the idea of cohorting, or having all patients with coronavirus or respiratory illness together, which saves on personal protective equipment and staffing is the way to go.
“If that includes amongst them a hospital that is exclusively for coronavirus patients and that works operationally then we should absolutely explore it.”
The state of emergency declaration gives authorities powers under public health and wellbeing laws to enforce a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people and to fine or even detain people who flout quarantine orders.
The laws, which have never been used before, give Dr Sutton the ability to do what he believes is necessary to contain the spread of the virus and reduce the risk to the public.
Fines of up to $20,000 could be imposed on anyone refusing to comply with a public health order issued under the legislation.
Mr Andrews warned on Monday morning there could be spot checks by police on people who had been placed in 14-day self isolation after returning from overseas.
What Victoria’s state of emergency means
A state of emergency grants special powers to government authorities to protect the public in an extraordinary situation.
The Victorian government declared a four-week state of emergency from midday on Monday, March 16 using the special laws for the first time.
It will allow large areas or even suburbs and specific businesses to be isolated, and activates extraordinary powers to enforce self-isolation, prevent people from entering large venues and shut down mass gatherings.
Under this state of emergency the government can:
- Prohibit mass gatherings of more than 500 people. However, airports, schools and universities, aged care facilities, food markets, and emergency services are among the current exemptions.
- Schools exempt for now, but large gatherings such as assemblies or lectures are being restricted.
- Large public spaces needed for people to pass through such as Federation Square or Bourke Street Mall are excluded.
- Impose self-quarantine on anyone who has returned from overseas travel to any country after a specified date, though flight crews and Pacific Island citizens returning home will not need to self isolate.
- Spot checks on people in enforced self-isolation.
- Detain any person to eliminate risk to public health.
- Prevent any person or group from entering a defined emergency area.
- Impose penalties of up to $20,000 on individuals who fail to comply with a direction under the state of emergency. Body corporates can be fined up to $100,000.
More than 7000 Victorians will also have their elective surgeries fast-tracked to be completed in the next few weeks to free up capacity in hospitals as health officials across the country scramble to prepare for a “tsunami” of COVID-19 patients.
Griffith University infectious diseases expert Professor Nigel McMillan welcomed the extreme measures, including police enforcement of public health orders, as he warned cases of the potentially deadly virus were expected to continue to grow exponentially in Australia in the coming weeks.
Professor McMillan said while measures may seem extreme, they were necessary to protect the public as he highlighted multiple examples in Australia of people who had tested positive to the virus but then flouted strict quarantine guidelines.
In one case, a man aged in his 20s who later tested positive for the virus ignored warnings to stay away from public places, visiting two popular night spots and working a shift at a major inner-city hotel in Hobart while awaiting his results.
In other cases, a man who tested positive after arriving in Tasmania from Iran left the hospital to enter self-isolation at home until the results came in but visited a city supermarket to stock up on the way, while another man from Townsville reportedly flew into New Zealand after testing positive to the virus.
“While most Australians are following the advice of health authorities there have still been numerous cases where people have not done the right thing whether that is due to ignorance or lack of clear understanding of the risk they are posing to the public and it is simply not good enough,” Professor McMillan said.
“We say this over and over – while you may get a mild illness from infection, the self-isolation is critical to protect our parents and our grandparents and those at most risk of getting a severe illness.”
Professor McMillian said as of Monday morning there had been 22 reported cases in which Australians aged over 70 had been diagnosed with coronavirus and five of them have since died.
“That’s a nearly one in four fatality rate,” he said.
“Now it is very early days and the data may pan out and we could see about a 15 per cent death rate for this age group like we have in other countries. But there is no doubt this is a really serious group and by doing the hard work now, by acting fast and protecting the spread of infection, we can reap the benefits later.”
Professor McMillan urged those in the over 65 age group and those with comorbidities or other underlying health conditions, to avoid large social gatherings.
“They really should not be attending large public gatherings at all,” Professor McMillan said.
Updated health advice for Australians
The symptoms of coronavirus include:
- Shortness of breath; and
- Breathing difficulties
If you suspect you or a family member has coronavirus you should call (not visit) your GP or ring the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.