Inside QLD’s pandemic response: 15 years in making
QUEENSLAND'S response to the coronavirus pandemic, hailed as among the best in the world for saving lives and preventing an overwhelmed hospital system, has been 15 years in the making.
Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young has been meticulously planning for a severe pandemic since soon after starting in the role in 2005 when scientists feared avian flu would turn into a biological tsunami and swamp the world's hospitals.
For years, she's ensured the state has significant stockpiles of personal protective equipment - masks, gowns, gloves and face shields - to keep health workers safe in the face of an ongoing infectious disease threat.
After the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which was not as deadly as feared, Dr Young has insisted the state's plan for the next big worldwide outbreak of a novel, infectious disease, is regularly revised.
"We looked at what worked and didn't and we very, very carefully worked through after that pandemic what we needed to do to be prepared for the next one," she said.
Queensland's pandemic plan was reviewed late last year in the weeks before news of a strange pneumonia started leaking out of China.
Within days of China informing the World Health Organisation on December 31 of the mystery respiratory illness in one of its provinces, Queensland Health was advising the state's doctors and laboratories to be on the alert for potential cases.
"There is a cluster of cases of viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China. The cause is being reported as a novel coronavirus," the department's January 10 public health alert said.
"Patients presenting with respiratory illness should always be asked about their travel history. Be alert for patients who have travelled to Wuhan, China, within two weeks of onset of illness and who present with fever and respiratory symptoms. Please place a surgical mask on the patient and isolate as soon as they are identified."
Eleven days later, on January 21, Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles declared the then unnamed coronavirus a public health emergency of statewide significance.
Confirmed COVID-19 Cases in QLD
That was four days before Australia's so-called patient zero - a Chinese man in his 50s who tested positive in Melbourne after recent travel to Wuhan. The same day, January 25, Queensland Health stood up its State Health Emergency Co-ordination Centre (SHECC) to deal with the emerging threat.
On January 29, Queensland's first case was diagnosed in a man who had travelled to the Gold Coast as part of a tour group visiting Australia from Wuhan.
In the 80 days since then, another 1006 cases of the novel coronavirus have been diagnosed in the state and five Queenslanders have died.
So far at least, a virus described by some as an invisible invader, which has stalked and killed tens of thousands in the US, Italy, Spain and the UK, as well as China - flooding their health systems - has been contained in Queensland.
Dr Young insists Queensland, and Australia, was just as vulnerable to COVID-19 as those countries, perhaps more.
"If you look at the modelling data, look at how many people fly out of China into Australia compared to out of China into Europe or the United States - a lot more come to Australia," she said.
"We managed it and Europe and the US didn't. They didn't pay any attention to the fact that they were importing cases out of China and look where they are now. It's awful."
When she sees the disturbing images from overseas of crowded hospitals and lines of coffins, Dr Young says: "I do genuinely … thank God that I'm working in Queensland on a regular basis."
She said she had government backing for the measures that needed to be taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 "from day one".
"The whole machinery of a response just switched on immediately," Dr Young said.
"There was no pushback, no problem. That makes a big difference, enormous difference."
She also singled out the National Cabinet, which has brought together both major sides of the political spectrum, for praise, hailing the decision to close the nation's borders.
"That's protected us like you wouldn't believe," she said.
With Dr Young steering the state's response, Queensland has kept a razor sharp focus on the public health pillars of controlling the spread of a disease - testing, contact tracing of cases, quarantine and isolation.
While counter-terrorism detectives attempt to keep Queensland, and Australia, safe from extremists, lesser-known disease detectives are working behind the scenes to keep people safe from deadly pathogens and Queensland has some of the best in the world.
"We've got an absolutely brilliant team," Dr Young said.
She was also keen to give credit to ordinary Queenslanders for their help in keeping COVID-19 at bay.
"I genuinely think Queenslanders in the vast, vast majority of cases, listen to advice," she said.
"They're being told to stay at home. They're doing it. I can't believe the results we're getting. That's due to what they're all doing."
QUEENSLAND'S CORONAVIRUS TIMELINE:
January 10: Queensland Health issues "Important Public Health Alert" warning doctors and laboratories about a viral pneumonia cluster in Wuhan, China.
The alert advises them to watch for "patients who have travelled to Wuhan, China, within two weeks of onset of illness and who present with fever and respiratory symptoms.
Please place a surgical mask on the patient and isolate as soon as they are identified." One day later, Wuhan reports first death.
January 21: Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young declares "a public health emergency of state significance" and tells reporters a man in Queensland from Wuhan with respiratory symptoms would be tested.
The World Health Organisation does not declare a public health emergency for another 10 days.
January 25: Dr Young stands up Queensland's State Health Emergency Co-ordination Centre. She instructs public hospital EDs to waive testing fees for foreign nationals suspected of carrying coronavirus.
January 29: The first case of the new virus is confirmed in Queensland - a man travelling in a tour group from Wuhan, admitted to the Gold Coast University Hospital the day before.
January 30: Authorities are granted extraordinary new powers to forcibly detain and treat suspected patients. Other states wait until March to declare a state of emergency, giving authorities the same powers.
February 2: Queensland sets up fever clinics in key EDs as residents returning from mainland China are told to go into quarantine for 14 days. On the same day, the first death outside China is recorded in the Philippines.
March 1: Dr Young pleads with Queenslanders flying home from overseas to seek prompt medical help if they fall ill within 14 days of returning.
March 12: She releases modelling for Queensland, based on overseas data, showing up to a quarter of the population could be infected over six months, with 20 per cent requiring hospitalisation and a 1 per cent fatality rate, equating to 12,500 deaths.
March 13: Dr Young urges people to avoid elderly friends or relatives even if they only have a sniffle.
March 23: Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announces she will close the state's borders.
March 30: The Premier urges partying Queenslanders to stay home, likening the potential impact of the pandemic coronavirus to 30 cyclones.
April 4: Dr Young warns about concerns regarding 30 cases of community transmission of the virus where the source cannot be traced.
April 6: Testing is expanded to include anyone with symptoms of the virus in Brisbane, Cairns or the Gold Coast, where small numbers of untraceable cases have been found.
Originally published as Inside QLD's pandemic response: 15 years in making