Gunner the statesman short on facts for Centre

Above: Timely message on an Eastside fence in Alice Springs.

 

By ERWIN CHLANDA

Updated 24 march, 3.52pm. See at bottom.

 

 

In an extraordinary 1691 word statement today Michael Gunner slipped into the role of the great statesman: “But if I didn’t make these hard choices to save lives, I could never forgive myself. This is not the end – in coming days, I’ll have to ask even more of you.”

 

Winston Churchill, move over with your paltry “blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

 

The Chief Minister reached a crescendo referring to Coronavirus news images from Italy, asking Territorians to “see the sick and the dying lined up in hospitals hallways. That could be mum, that could be dad. That could be your brother, your sister, your colleague, your mate. It could be your son or your daughter. It could be you, it could be me.”

 

There was more, much more, delivered in front of Darwin media.

 

While considerable time and effort went into communicating this largely rhetorical speech, in which Mr Gunner claimed big lots of kudos for major decisions made at Federal level, what he did not do was answer some basic questions: While Darwin media received responses, our questions on vital matters related to the virus threat in the Centre have gone unanswered:

 

How many people have been tested?

 

According to the NT Government’s advice only people with symptoms need to be tested, but other countries have adopted more aggressive testing – see below.

 

This issue was also raised by one of the Darwin journalists, putting to  Mr Gunner that the NT’s testing was constrained by the availability of the test kits, and not based on the best medical advice.

 

Mr Gunner answered that he was taking his advice, including on the availability of resources, from the Chief Medical Officer: “We do what we can with what we’ve got,” he said.

 

See update at bottom, relevant to the above issue. 

 

How many isolation rooms are available?  Where?

 

Mr Gunner referred to the Inpex workers village but what is the comparable facility in southern NT?

 

How will isolation be enforced?

 

What will people entering the NT be told to do?

 

How will it be monitored that these instructions are followed?

 

What will happen to people who do not follow them?

 

How many beds are there for acute cases?

 

No awnsers to these questions.

 

The ABC’s Jane Bardon noted the existing 18 ICU beds and asked about the NT’s ability to scale up.

 

Mr Gunner said the NT will be able to access the National Critical Care and Trauma Centre (based in Darwin) and significant Defence resources. Again, nothing specific to the southern NT.

 

Will communities with known cases be locked down?

 

How will acute patients from remote areas be transported to hospital?

 

Do we have adequate facilities and equipment and staff to do this?

 

Have police assigned to borders got all the personal protection equipment they require?

 

This is an issue being raised by the NT Police Association. It was not addressed at the media conference but there was discussion of sufficient resourcing for policing the borders. Mr Gunner said the Territory will also be able to draw of Australian Federal Police and defence resources for border patrols and welcomed the cooperation with the NT’s neighbouring states. (WA and SA are also closing their borders from tomorrow.)

 

What has been and is being done to trace airline passengers on the Darwin flights carrying infected people?

 

The ABC’s Jane Bardon put to Mr Gunner that all incoming passengers from interstate, some 2000, be required to self-isolate as a precaution. That will be enforceable from tomorrow, said Mr Gunner.

 

The NT’s coronavirus pages identify three flights that are being traced, asking people who were on them to call, but does not explain what other actions, if any are being taken.

 

The Alice Springs News put this to Mr Gunner’s department which runs SecureNT, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 19 and we still don’t have reply:

 

Apart from rigorously controlled essential services workers, are people able and permitted to move between urban, rural and remote centres in the NT at their discretion?

 

At the head of the reply Secure NT said “yes”.

 

That appears to conflict with a paragraph lower down in the reply which says: “Remote communities in the Northern Territory have been closed to all non-essential travel in response to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.”

 

There is no specific advice on the NT Government’s coronavirus pages regarding travel out of and between remote communities.

 

Our questions follow closely statements made yesterday in an interview by the ABC’s Insiders with Professor Ben Cowling (pictured), from the University of Hong Kong, who detailed measures by countries doing much better than others in the control of the Coronavirus.

 

He said, in part, “they are doing a lot of testing and are very good at isolating cases and quarantining their contacts, so from the known cases we can stop the chains of transmission.”

 

ABC: Is this more important than shutting down schools and work places?

 

COWLING: In Hong Kong and Singapore we have seen we need both types of measures … we need some degree of social distancing, because there’s always cases we don’t find.

 

ABC: When you say a lot of testing and tracing, what does that involve?

 

COWLING: When we find a confirmed case, looking at who they’ve spent maybe more than 15, 30 minutes [as would have been the case with the flights to Darwin] … in a closed location, and then getting a list of those names, tracking those people down, and then in Hong Kong giving quarantine orders to those people. They need to go to quarantine camps or maybe a hotel or home quarantine for 14 days. It seems really strict but that kind of measure can really help to stop onwards transmission.

 

Prof Cowling says some of these facilities are former holiday camps but now “all closed off [so people] are out of the community.

 

“We think of these as draconian measures at the community level, but what we are trying to prevent in Hong Kong and Singapore and some other places is having to resort to the kind of very draconian lock-downs of entire cities or regions like we saw in China and northern Italy and now some of the United States.”

 

These are the issues we are asking the Chief Minister to deal with, giving specific, detailed and sober information.

 

UPDATE 24 March 2020, 3.50pm:

 

China did not include asymptomatic positive cases – 43,000 of them – in its statistics for coronavirus infections. This means that conclusions based on Chinese statistics, that downplayed the proportion of cases that are asymptomatic and their possible contribution to the spread of the disease, are in doubt.

 

This is being reported by The Australian’s China correspondent, drawing on an article in the South China Morning Post.

 

It has implications for containment strategies which focus on testing people who are showing symptoms, as is the case in the NT.

 

“A joint study by experts in China, the US, Britain and Hong Kong estimated that mild and asymptomatic cases were the source of infection of almost 80 per cent of documented cases found in Wuhan before it was locked down on January 23,” says The Australian’s report.

 

The decision to not include asymptomatic cases was made after 7 February, significantly reducing the number of new infections China reported.

 

 

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16 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Peter
    Posted March 27, 2020 at 1:30 pm

    Driving around town I see Alice Springs Town Council work gangs operating as if nothing has changed.
    Workers are not obeying the social distancing rules.
    And should they really be attending to routine non essential jobs that involve gangs of workers?
    Council workers need to be redeployed to help fight the coming pandemic.
    There are many jobs they could do in conjunction with health organisations.
    Time to refocus Alice Springs Town Council.

    View Comment
  2. Zac
    Posted March 26, 2020 at 8:28 pm

    @ Joan Carpenter: Call the Alice Springs hospital. Ask them directly about getting checked. They should be able to have you tested.
    It will be ridiculous if they can’t, they surely would be the place to look after any potential outbreaks so surely they are also the testing centre. In the morning I will call them myself.

    View Comment
  3. James T Smerk
    Posted March 26, 2020 at 3:49 pm

    Anyone not residing at home in these times is an flaming idiot. We have all had enough warnings to get home from wherever, travelling not is just plain stupidity. Clear and simple.

    View Comment
  4. Local1
    Posted March 26, 2020 at 11:55 am

    Yet the grey nomads continue to flock over the border from SA into the NT.
    Yes, they fill out a piece of paper promising to self isolate.
    Problem is they do so in Darwin, where their holidays are booked.
    Obviously they get there by stopping for fuel at Alice, Ti Tree, Aileron, Tennant, Three Ways, Katherine and all places in between.
    Closing the borders should mean just that: If you do not live here, or you are not bringing in supplies, turn around at the border.
    Until that is done, the other measures implemented on us a farcical. Treat your own rules seriously, then we might too.

    View Comment
  5. Peter
    Posted March 26, 2020 at 10:31 am

    Schools in Queensland are to be closed from next week except for the kids of essential services staff.
    Here is Alice even schools catering to high risk Aboriginal students from bush communities are open.
    These kids run away often or go home for funerals or sports etc then come back.
    Just a matter of time before some of the students are infected and in turn infect their communities.
    Schools teaching remote Aboriginal students in our town are doing a huge disservice to Aboriginal people.
    They should be focused on the well-being of community families not just on the money they get for the students.

    View Comment
  6. Joan Carpenter
    Posted March 26, 2020 at 9:39 am

    Evelyne, we were given a sheet of paper in Adelaide, stating we must isolate for 14 days. There were no forms to fill in with contact details, so no one is checking on us.

    View Comment
  7. David
    Posted March 25, 2020 at 9:03 pm

    Yes, where are the Aboriginal health organisations? AMSANT, where are you?
    Sending around pamphlets is not enough. Not all Aboriginal people are literate, you should know that.
    The quickest way to get the message to Aboriginal people especially those from the bush is get out there with many vehicles you can get, drive around with a megaphone or loudspeaker up and down creeks and everywhere.
    Get interpreters to speak in language to their people loud and clear. Tell people to go back to community, get off the streets before it’s too late.
    That needs to occur up and down the NT. Forget about political correctness.
    We are facing a pandemic with potential to wipe out so many people if decisive action is not taken, act now.
    Stupid idea to keep the bottlos open, Gunner. Be more serious with the lock down.

    View Comment
  8. Evelyne Roullet
    Posted March 25, 2020 at 8:07 pm

    Joan, were you told to isolate for 14 days? Where were you told where, how, etc?
    Anyone checking if you are doing the right thing?

    View Comment
  9. Joan Carpenter
    Posted March 25, 2020 at 5:29 pm

    Thank you Ralph Folds: We entered Australia via Adelaide and Alice Springs airports where there were no checks, and no registration regarding our whereabouts etc, just a piece of paper telling us we must isolate for 14 days.
    I would have thought we were in a high risk category, considering many of the positive cases in Australia have come from overseas.
    What would have happened in Alice Springs if we became unwell during our isolation days, if there is no testing available in Alice Springs?

    View Comment
  10. Peter
    Posted March 25, 2020 at 1:44 pm

    A pandemic is about to overtake Central Australia and Aboriginal people are at high risk.
    Where is Congress?
    What are they doing when there is so much they could do?
    They have many Aboriginal staff who could take the keep safe message to Aboriginal people in town and on communities.
    They could be running programs in schools and in particular Yirara College and the Bush Mob.
    Most importantly they could be speaking out about the approaching health disaster.
    They could be demanding the measures that all health professionals know are needed such as stopping the flow of people between town and communities and closing schools.
    Of course this would be biting the Federal hand that feeds them.
    But they should do it anyway.
    Are they waiting for a big payment to run a program?
    Congress already gets around $50m a year in funding and they own a share in secretive but fabulously wealthy Centrecorp.
    Congress have spare cash, they don’t spend all their funding.
    In 2017 Congress had unspent cash and cash equivalents to the value of $20.3m.
    If the pandemic takes many Aboriginal lives while Congress sit idly by their failure will be remembered.
    Their credibility will be zero.

    View Comment
  11. Ralph Folds
    Posted March 25, 2020 at 11:49 am

    @ Joan: You are doing the right thing, or trying to.
    The whole issue of testing is unclear in the NT.
    We are the only State / Territory to not release our testing data.
    COVID-19 cases are doubling every three to four days in Australia.
    So 2146 today then 4292 in 3-4 days then 8584, 17168, etc etc the numbers become enormous very quickly.
    Inevitably hospitals will be overwhelmed in April.
    Italy’s infection rate has been doubling every four days so it’s about the same as ours.
    In the last 24 hours there were 743 deaths in Italy.
    Central Australia is not a good location during this pandemic with a high risk of infection and a lack of medical services if you become seriously ill.
    Many venues in Alice Springs are crowded and social distancing is mostly ignored.
    Travel between Aboriginal communities and town continues as before even though Aboriginal people face a high risk of serious illness or death.

    View Comment
  12. Joan Carpenter
    Posted March 25, 2020 at 8:45 am

    We have returned from overseas and are in isolation, a situation we take very seriously. When our 14 days have expired, we intend to join one of the support groups here, and as a precaution would like to get tested to make sure we are virus free. I note Darwin and Katherine have a testing unit, but is there one here we can access?

    View Comment
  13. Greg Simon
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 12:51 pm

    Take the easy way, not the right way, seems to be the order of the day.
    So lock everybody and everything away instead of isolating only those that need to be after being tested as positive.
    Kill the economy for lack of a bit of commonsense.
    After all, they’ll still have their jobs at the end of it!

    View Comment
  14. Ralph Folds
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 11:27 am

    My FaceBook feed is running hot with miracle cures and virus killers.
    Many people on communities seem to think that gargling with mouth wash keeps them safe because they believe the virus spends 72 hours in your throat so you can flush it out.
    Some people are coming to town on the Bush Bus to buy the life saving mouth wash for their extended families.
    Coming to town is a risk for Aboriginal people, they are much safer in their communities.
    Believing they are safe probably means they will not do the things that really keep them safe like social distancing and hand washing.
    Local clinics and NT Heath need to counter the misinformation in bush communities.

    View Comment
  15. Michael
    Posted March 23, 2020 at 11:57 pm

    Testing is important because a large fraction of people who are infected show little to no symptoms.
    There is also an optimal percent of a population who should be tested daily to identify and manage possible outbreaks early.
    If our hospital, for example, tested 15 people daily who present at the outpatient clinic it would give useful information.
    Is such a testing program even possible with “what we have”?

    View Comment
  16. Peter
    Posted March 23, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    Outrageous that Gunner is not doubling or tripling the ICU beds at the Alice Springs Hospital.
    ICU beds are the lifesavers for COVID-19 patients as they can be kept breathing on a respirator instead of suffocating.
    I have heard that there are 12 ICU beds in the Hospital.
    On average four those ICU beds are taken up with cardiac, car accident etc patients.
    So there are eight beds available for COVID-19 patients.
    That is woefully inadequate.
    The hospital will be overwhelmed and doctors will have to decide who lives and who dies.
    There will be many unnecessary deaths here I because of the lack of adequate ICU care.

    View Comment

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