School of Population Health

School of Population Health (SPH) supports NSW Health in COVID Response

Image Covid-19 health challenge

“I have to say that critical decision-making and critical staff, with critical expertise are a real struggle... they are hard to grow immediately, they are not someone you can rapidly train up and I’d like to acknowledge the role that universities have (played) in releasing some of their very senior staff to support us at the time of need. That was much appreciated.”

Dr Kerry Chant, Chief Health Officer, NSW led a panel discussion at the School of Population Health, UNSW earlier this month where she acknowledged the role some of the School members are playing in helping the government tackle COVID-19. The panel, moderated by ABC’s Sarah Dingle, also had senior faculty member Prof Mary-Louise McLaws, and Dr Mark Wenitong, from Apunipima Cape York Health Council and member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID 19. The speakers shared important information and insight into the current pandemic, the country’s overall response and also the way forward.

The panel unanimously agreed that Australia, and NSW in particular, had done well to keep the numbers in control. Dr Chant explained, “Australia overall has an excellent public health system and many of the things that have stood us in good stead include our ability to rapidly scale up testing, our ability to work and coordinate across levels of government, our ability to work with our Aboriginal sector and primary care.” Elaborating on what had worked in NSW’s favour, she spoke about how the regional structure for public health and the local health units had proved to be the state’s biggest strength. “We’ve got a local health district structure whereby the hospitals are not only responsible for healthcare delivered out of the hospital, but are responsible for community care and public health and have an invested interest in the community around them.” Citing the outbreak associated with the Crossroads Hotel, she emphasized the importance of community mobilization in tackling the situation. “We were able to, within a few hours, mobilize teams from the local district, complimented by support from the police.”

Discussing the state’s policy on the use of face-masks, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws responded to current figures showing that only 30% of public transport users are seen wearing face masks. A member of the WHO Advisory Panel on the Response to COVID-19, Prof McLaws explained the evidence around the efficacy of fabric masks in preventing infections, “It is very inexpensive and now there is evidence to show that fabric masks can give somewhere between 30- 75% protection and if everybody wears then you’ll filtering out exhaled air and filtering in inhaled air and that has to better than a bare face, so yes I would prefer it to be more than 30%.” Dr Chant added that while masks were important, especially in areas where it is difficult to practice social distancing, they should not be considered the only intervention. She said, “We need to wear masks and use masks as an adjunct, we need to maintain that social distancing and we also need to get that message that people can’t go to work when you’re sick… we’ve had a case recently where someone used a mask as a way of enabling going into work and that’s not to be.”

Addressing the impact of the pandemic on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Mark Wenitong expressed relief that Indigenous populations in Australia had fared much better than Indigenous communities in other countries like the US. He said, “There are some approaches we have used that have been useful but essentially it is the generic public health approaches… we have got just one remote positive in Australia in the Aboriginal community and 120 cases Australia-wide that we know about.” Dr Wenitong also highlighted the importance of the communication strategies led by the Aboriginal community-controlled health service sector in COVID prevention.

The discussion also allowed for clarity on what the country was aiming for given that eradication or elimination of the virus in the foreseeable future is an unrealistic goal. Dr Chant explained, “Whilst we are not in a situation where we are able to eliminate the virus for a very very long time, we don’t have the tools, we don’t have an effective vaccine, we don’t have highly effective treatment at this point in time, so we are looking at no community transmission… so therefore it is never about returning to normal, it is around making sure we maintain COVID safe practices and that you have very high rates of testing.”

Dr Chant concluded the discussion appreciating the University’s support, and shared how those on the frontline of the COVID response have had to keep learning and evolving in the face of this unprecedented challenge. She said an ongoing dialogue with the community, transparency and openness, have helped them frame the right messaging to prevent the spread of the virus. “It has been welcoming to see the university assisting us in this first phase... we have had to surge, bring on new staff… knowing that those people we have trained and worked with, if we are in another crisis, we can call them back.”

As Dr Chant mentioned, the pandemic has brought to the fore an urgent need for trained, skilled public health professionals who can work with local authorities to help contain the spread of the virus, trace its path and respond proactively to prevent community transmission.

Several members from the School of Population Health have been seconded to NSW Health to support the department in its pandemic response. Dr Adam Craig, Deputy Director of the Bachelor of International Public Health (BIPH) program is working with NSW Health as a team leader in the Operations part of the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre (PHEOC). “The role involves working with an amazing team that manages all the COVID-19 clusters,” explains Adam, “think Ruby Princess, nursing home clusters, wedding clusters, etc. It also responds to immediate operational needs that arise, for example–how do you get a sick person off a cruise ship at sea? How do we manage the health needs of returned travellers stuck at the airport? How do we track down a case that has gone AWOL? How do we work with other jurisdictions?”

Other faculty members and students from the School, currently supporting NSW Health, include Dr Bette Liu, Prof John Hall, Dr David Muscatello, Dr Melanie Anderson, Assoc Prof Telphia Joseph, Adam Howie, Kate Patten and Aaron Simon.

Watch video: COVID-19: The ultimate public health challenge