Health authorities are preparing for a “worst-case scenario” of millions of Australians stricken with coronavirus as the outbreak of the deadly disease accelerates across the country.
Chief health officer Brendan Murphy said health authorities across Australia were modelling any outbreak from the “most benign” upwards.
“We need to be sure that we plan for every eventuality, and build capacity where we think it may be under-pressure if we have one of the worst-case scenarios,” he said on Thursday.
“We are looking at scenarios from the most benign through to some millions of people being infected over a period of several weeks – and we think our health system is well able to cope with that, but we are making sure.”
Australia so far has about 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Among them is an eight-month-old baby whose mother was diagnosed with the infection on Wednesday.
Professor Murphy and Prime Minister Scott Morrison also said on Thursday that Australia would ban travellers from South Korea and introduce “enhanced screening” for those from Italy to deal with the escalating COVID-19 epidemic.
The bans follow similar action relating to China and Iran.
Korean visitors will be banned from 9pm on Thursday.
Australian citizens and permanent residents returning from Korea will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days when they return home.
Mr Morrison said travellers from Italy would be asked more questions at check-in and have their temperatures checked on arrival in Australia.
Professor Murphy also repeated his view there was no reason for people to wear face masks on a daily basis, or to stock up on essentials such as toilet paper.
“We should continue normal activity, we should watch the development of this and we will focus on any outbreaks and control,” he said.
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Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government had 20 million face masks stockpiled. It would continue to make them available to doctors, he said.
Elsewhere, a group of young children was being screened for the virus on Thursday after it emerged they had visited a Sydney nursing home where an elderly woman died from the disease.
About 17 children visited residents at the Dorothy Henderson Lodge at Macquarie Park on February 24.
That was before one of the centre’s nurses, aged in her 50s, tested positive for coronavirus.
A 95-year-old woman from the lodge has been confirmed as Australia’s second virus death. Two men, aged 82 and 70, are also infected.
NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant said more cases were expected from the home.
Lodge staff failed to turn up for work on Wednesday, after learning of the woman’s death. NSW Health was forced to scramble nurses to cover for them, leading to a spat with the federal government.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he asked Mr Hunt for emergency funding to cover the cost of nursing staff.
But he said he was told he would need to go through the Independent Hospital Pricing Authority.
“This is now a war, it’s a war with coronavirus,” he said.
“We need to know that the federal government’s got our back, and if we make decisions that are nimble, in the interests of patients, in the interests of citizens, and it costs state taxpayers, then the federal government will back us on that funding.”
The federal government also said on Thursday it would audit 100 aged-care homes across Australia to make sure they can protect their residents against the spread of coronavirus.
Authorities have also revealed that two Sydney doctors who have COVID-19 attended the same medical workshop on February 18, along with about 70 other medical professionals.
The doctors, from Ryde and Liverpool hospitals, are so far the only ones who are sick from that group, and 14 days have passed, giving authorities hope that no one else has been infected.