The Australian government has initiated its emergency response plan for a global pandemic, it has been revealed, as the coronavirus continues its rapid spread beyond China.
News of the plan’s activation comes as a tourist hotel housing around thousand people on the Spanish island of Tenerife was placed in quarantine after two guests tested positive for COVID-19.
The mass quarantine followed concerns of an impending pandemic after outbreaks of the virus in Iran, South Korea and Italy, and as fears of a worldwide epidemic rattled global markets.
Reports on Wednesday revealed the “The COVID-19 plan” – the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan For Novel Coronavirus – was activated in January.
The plans is the blueprint for dealing with a large-scale coronavirus outbreak and outlines three degrees of severity for the epidemic.
“The novel coronavirus outbreak represents a significant risk to Australia,” the document says.
“It has the potential to cause high levels of morbidity and mortality and to disrupt our community socially and economically.”
Three levels of concern
The “low” impact is comparable to the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the document states, saying existing plans and laws should be enough to support activities, although at its peak primary care and hospital services may become stretched in areas associated with respiratory illness and acute care.
A “moderate” outbreak would put hospitals under “severe pressure”, particularly in areas associated with respiratory illness and acute care.
“Surge staffing and alternate models of clinical care, such as cohorting and/or establishment of flu-like clinics may need to be employed to cope with increased demands for healthcare,” it notes.
“Pressure on health services will be more intense, rise more quickly and peak earlier as the transmissibility of the disease increases. Healthcare staff may themselves be ill or have to care for ill family members, further exacerbating pressures on healthcare providers.”
A “high” outbreak would be comparable to the extreme 1918 “Spanish flu”, which infected one third of Australians and killed between 50 to 100 million people globally.
In this case, heavy prioritisation would be essential within hospitals and the pressure on health services would be greater, rise more quickly and peak earlier.
At Tenerife in the Canary Islands, an Italian doctor and his wife were placed in isolation at a nearby clinic after testing positive to COVID-19, while the entire H10 Adeje Palace hotel was locked down.
The hotel’s 1000 guests have been prevented from leaving, according to Spanish news media and town officials in Adeje.
The husband and wife are from northern Italy, which has registered most of Italy’s 283 cases.
Their test results are seen as further evidence that the centre of the outbreak in Europe is spreading as Italian citizens holiday around the world.
Austria has also sealed off the 108-room Grand Hotel Europa in the Alpine tourist hub of Innsbruck after an Italian receptionist tested positive for COVID-19.
The United States told Americans on Tuesday local time to begin preparing for coronavirus to spread within the country.
Doctor Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said that while the immediate risk in the US was low, the current global situation suggested a pandemic was likely.
“It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when and how many people will be infected,” Dr Schuchat said.
In Iran, the Deputy Health Minister, who had previously denied that his country had a problem with the virus, has now said he has tested positive.
Beyond the human cost, the virus’ accelerating spread is making markets jittery.
Australian stocks have suffered a third day of heavy losses as the global market rout sparked by the spread of the coronavirus deepens.