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Ten questions about coronavirus

Mar 19, 2020 • 15m 20s

What are the symptoms of coronavirus? What can people do to stay safe? What kind of responses will be the most effective? Today, Rick Morton answers some of our basic questions about coronavirus.

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Ten questions about coronavirus

185 • Mar 19, 2020

Ten questions about coronavirus

[Phone ringing]

RUBY:

Hey, Rick, it's Ruby. How are you?

RICK:

Physically, I am fine. But, you know, self-isolation is not that much different to my normal life anyway so...actually, it’s nice to have something real to attach my usual thrum of existential dread to.

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues, many in the community are still unclear about the virus’ symptoms and how they can keep themselves safe.

This week, Rick Morton has spoken to a number of health experts to answer key questions about the virus.

And at the end of this episode, we’ll update you on the latest measures announced by the government to limit the outbreak.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

So, Rick, at the start this week, the Schwartz Media office sent you a Google document with the questions that we wanted answered about coronavirus. I've got here in front of me now, and there are ten questions that I want to ask you. Should we get into them?

RICK:

Let's do it. I'm here to answer some Q&As.

RUBY:

All right, great. Well, let's start with the first question. What do I do if I'm feeling unwell?

RICK:

Stay at home. I mean, if you are unwell and you have been overseas in the past fortnight or you have had contact with someone who is a confirmed case of coronavirus, then you do need to get tested and you need to call ahead to your GP or your doctor or your fever clinic or the hospital and let them know that you've had contact or that you've been overseas and they will tell you where to go and how to go about getting tested.

RUBY:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter for The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

If you are just unwell and you haven't been overseas and you haven't had contact with a known case, then basically the advice either way it's gonna be, stay home and don't touch anyone. Self isolate, basically.

RUBY:

Question two is how does it spread? Can you catch it from coughs, sneezes, handshakes?

RICK:

All of those things. So the coronavirus - COVID19, we're calling it now - spreads through droplets. Now, a disease like measles, which is the most infectious current disease in the world, is airborne, whereas coronavirus: droplets. So you basically have to cough - as someone put it to me - into someone's mouth, or onto a surface. And if your hands touch that surface and then you put your hands in your mouth, your nose or your eyes, those droplets and that virus, that pathogen in those droplets can be transferred to your body. So it is a relatively efficient transmission in that sense, but it's not airborne. So we don't have to be panicking about being two meters away from someone. Just don't touch your face, basically, is the advice.

RUBY:

Rick, next question. Is it true that you have to be in a room for an hour to catch it?

RICK:

Not necessarily. I mean, if you're in a room for 10 minutes and someone coughs on you, you may well have it. The other side of that question is, I mean, if you're keeping a distance from people in a room, then you might not get it at all in a room, but it can survive on surfaces for long enough to transfer to you. So just be wary of those things. That's the key point.

RUBY:

Another question, and I think this is one of mine, actually. How does coronavirus affect the body and how is this different from the regular flu?

RICK:

It's very similar to the common flu, in a sense. The two main symptoms with coronavirus are fever and a dry cough. You can also have a runny nose. You can also feel general tired or general aches. Although those are not always present.

In severe cases - and this is how it first became noticed in Wuhan, in Hubei Province in China - it manifests as viral pneumonia. Now, you know, they didn't know the cause of all these viral pneumonia cases in December when they started sweeping through that province. But that's what it kind of manifests as. So it's a respiratory illness and it basically means you have difficulty breathing, and the treatment required is oxygen and the usual treatments that are applied to pneumonia.

Beyond that, we don't know what it does to the body long term because this thing is new. And so we haven't actually had time to track people who have recovered from coronavirus to see what it does to the body in a year's time or two years' time, because that's common with many other diseases and infections is that you can actually have post infection conditions.

The short sense of the answer is it's really not that different if you're young and healthy to a common cold or the flu. But that's not a reason to be cavalier about it because it is deadly in certain parts of the population. And that is what we're trying to stop.

RUBY:

Ok next question - could you have coronavirus and not even know that you do?

RICK:

It's entirely possible. In fact, most of the experts agree that whatever the current case number is in Australia, and it's approaching, if not already passed 500 now, probably will be by the time you listen to this. There will be maybe two or three other people for every single one of those in the community who doesn't know they've got it. And that's not a problem as long as everyone obeys by the self-isolation and the self-quarantine rules.

If you are sick, don't go out, no matter whether you've been tested or not. Just don't go out and be in contact with other people. It's not a huge ask. Obviously, it becomes harder for different groups like vulnerable Australians or people who are older and living alone. And if you get really ill and you need medical support, then you can be put in isolation in a hospital and that's fine. But because most of the symptoms are mild, you can have it and not even know that you've got it because you won't have been tested. So stay at home.

RUBY:

And Rick, are you immune to COVID19 after you've had it once?

RICK:

It looks that way. But there have been a very tiny number of reports of people who have been reinfected. And, now, I've spoken to many experts about this and virologists and epidemiologists. And what we don't know for sure yet is whether that's because there was essentially a false positive the first time around. And so whereas somebody was told that they had it, but it was actually not true, and then they actually did get it. And so that looks like a re-infection, but it might not necessarily be. So there's that.

And then there's kind of the issues of herd immunity, which we've heard a lot of people talking about with regard to the UK’s approach, which I should say, the UK’s now abandoned approach. The basic point there is that there is no herd immunity without a vaccine.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Rick, you’ve spoken to a series of medical experts, and You’re giving us key facts about coronavirus. Let’s get to treatment. So, what is available to people who contract the virus?

RICK:

We can't cure it at the moment and we don't have a vaccine. The usual treatment is the treatment you would get if you had viral pneumonia or difficulty breathing. Like we mentioned before, having an oxygen supply at hospital, IV drips and all the rest of it. So that’s the treatment in the hospital sense.

Professor Paul Young and his team at the University of Queensland are working on an actual vaccine. But that work, even if they find a vaccine, it's gonna be, you know, they're trying to do it in nine months, but it's probably going to be 12 to 18 months by the time clinical trials get done.

Another team at the University of Queensland have trialled these two existing drugs. So one of them is an HIV drug and another one is chloroquine, which is an antimalarial agent that has already been approved for use in people for those reasons many, many years ago. Now, it seems maybe that there is a correlation between giving those drugs and people recovering from coronavirus. Again, we don't know if they have recovered anyway and the drugs did nothing. But there is certainly some promising avenues there to look at in terms of treatment.

But at this point, there is nothing that has passed the scientific test or peer review for that matter.

RUBY:

Rick, what did the health experts that you spoke to say about whether people should keep going to work and whether schools should stay open or close?

RICK:

That's a very good question.

So the schools one is highly contentious. I mean, going to work, if you can work from home, you should. Some bosses are being really idiotic about it. In fact, they're asking some people to prove whether they're being productive at home, otherwise they have to come back into the office, which just seems silly. If you can work from home, you should. That's not even in question.

Schools are different. So everyone intuitively believes that children are amazing vectors of disease. And with most diseases, they are. They’re dirty. They're lovely, but they're dirty. And they spread germs and illnesses and flu and cold and all the rest of it. The evidence is not so clear about the coronavirus. Now, this is not my opinion. I've spoken to three different epidemiologists and infectious disease physicians, including Dr. Catherine Snow from the University of Melbourne, Professor Ellen Cheng from Monash University and Dr. Trent Yarwood, who advises the Queensland government and is also a physician, an infectious diseases physician. And all of them said that there is no clear evidence that schools should close, certainly not now. And the reason that is is multifactorial.

So, the kids do not appear to be vectors because the kids do not get especially sick. And with this virus, you are more contagious, by the looks of it, when you are showing more symptoms. So that's one part of the response.

Plus, it would be an incredible thing to shut down all the schools in Australia. Whatever control measures we have in place, they’re not just for two weeks, we have to be able to sustain them. Now, if we shut the schools, we have to do it for six months. Now, we can save that firepower for the peak of the infection if we need one final hit at controlling this thing. But even if we did it now, the effects would be modest at most. There are many other things we can and should be doing that will have a greater impact on whether the curve of this infection goes straight up or whether we can dull that incline somewhat.

RUBY:

And Rick, what happens to the virus when winter starts?

RICK:

There is evidence that certainly this pathogen responds to temperature and humidity in the outside world. So, you know, if you leave it on a handrail, high heat will kill the virus. They don’t like that. So as the months get cooler, the conditions become more amenable to the virus surviving outside the body. It also means people generally get sick with other stuff anyway. So there's coughing and spluttering and droplets galore. So it becomes more of a contest then to try and contain it.

So it certainly looks like transmission could speed up absent any other control measures when winter sets in. And so that's also something that's on our horizon now and something we need to be careful of. Again, this is a new virus and research is ongoing into many of these aspects. So we don't have complete 100 percent certainty about what winter will do. But those are the likely chain of events.

RUBY:

And Rick - last question - what about the health system? What are nurses and doctors doing and what are they being told?

RICK:

Yeah, yeah, they've been told basically all hands on deck. And certainly, you know, I've got other people in Queensland in their health system who have been told that all leave that had been booked but not yet approved has been canceled.

Because, you know, what they're worried about is that the capacity of the existing health system with the existing number of ICU beds will be outpaced by coronavirus, particularly as we come to the months ahead. And this thing is due to peak, based on modeling and this could change, but it's due to peak around June. And at that point we will have more people requiring ICU beds than there are ICU beds in all of the public and private systems in Australia.

So that's why the control measures matter, right? Because you might be able to split this thing into two smaller waves, and that's better than one big wave coming all at once, and one big peak that overwhelms the health system, which is the other reason why these control measures need to be sustained for months because this thing will come back.

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[Theme music starts]

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Good morning, everyone. Life is changing in Australia, as it is changing all around the world. Life is going to continue to change as we deal with the global coronavirus.”

RUBY:

The Prime Minister yesterday announced a range of new measures approved by the national cabinet made up federal, state and territory leaders, to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Residents of aged care homes will only be able to have one visit per day, of no more than two people.

Non-essential Indoor gatherings of more than 100 people are banned, with exceptions for schools, universities, airports, public transport, medical and emergency services facilities, aged care homes, jails, courts, parliaments, supermarkets and many workplaces.

The Prime Minister also renewed calls for Australians to stay one and a half metres away from each other, and pleaded with the public to refrain from panic buying

The Government has also recommended abandoning international travel.

Scott Morrison said that health officials had advised federal and state governments to keep schools open for the time being.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“There is a national public interest here in keeping schools open and our advice is that is not being done to the detriment of any child.”

The measures have been publicly reinforced by a number of state and territory leaders.

And a survey by Roy Morgan has found 60 percent of Australian businesses have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

The manufacturing, wholesale, recreational and transport sectors have been the hardest hit.

Roy Morgan also found that consumer confidence has fallen to its lowest level in a decade.

As of last night, health authorities in Australia reported 512 confirmed cases of coronavirus.

Both NSW and Victoria recorded their highest number of daily new cases.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to grow, many in the community are still unclear about the virus’s symptoms, how they can keep themselves safe and what kind of responses will be the most effective. Today, Rick Morton answers some of our basic questions about coronavirus.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you tomorrow.

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185: Ten questions about coronavirus