With COVID-19 here to stay, the time has come for better surveillance

Australia’s 30-year-old infectious diseases surveillance system is set to be overhauled as Queensland worries about remote infections.

Mar 08, 2021, updated Mar 08, 2021
A helicopter retrieval in the Torres Strait. (AAP Image/Facebook, Queensland Ambulance Service)

A helicopter retrieval in the Torres Strait. (AAP Image/Facebook, Queensland Ambulance Service)

As COVID-19 vaccines continue to be rolled out across Australia – AstraZeneca vaccines will start being given today in Queensland – the Federal Government has moved to ensure it is better prepared for new outbreaks and waves of infection.

Health officials have told stakeholders the ongoing pandemic “has brought into stark focus the need to ensure Australia has robust public health surveillance systems in place to meet the challenges of an outbreak response”.

Not only is there a need to have a system capable of being scaled up in the event of an emergency, but also comply with international reporting obligations. The current National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System was established in 1990 and lacks flexibility.

The government wants the private sector to help “strengthen the surveillance systems to ensure Australia is better equipped to rapidly and accurately detect and assess disease outbreaks and maintain a state of preparedness to respond to national health emergencies and risks”.

However, a blueprint for reform is not expected until late 2022, and follows the government moving to also upgrade its immunisation surveillance and reporting systems. Governments have long been warned about the need to better prepare for pandemics.

The Palaszczuk government, meanwhile, is concerned the high rate of COVID-19 infection in Papua New Guinea will put at risk communities in the Torres Strait, where Queensland Health facilities are limited. Communities are already living under the threat of HIV and tuberculosis, both more common in PNG and subject to reporting under the surveillance system.

With the arrival of the AstraZeneca vaccine allowing its less-complicated immunisation program to begin today in Logan and Bundaberg, Queensland Health is looking to manage the supply of doses to prioritise those most at risk and ensure people can still get their second dose. The rollout of Pfizer vaccines has been restricted by logistical challenges.

Health Minister Yvette D’Ath today said Queensland officials were talking with their federal counterparts to determine how quickly AstraZeneca vaccines could be deployed to the Torres Strait. She expected further briefings in the coming days.

Queensland recorded five new cases of COVID-19 overnight, all detected in hotel quarantine, with 30 active cases now across the state.

“The cases we have today are from PNG,” D’Ath said.

“We are getting large numbers from PNG right now and we just want to make sure we are protecting our far north where we believe there is particular risk. “

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she hoped communities in the Torres Strait could be vaccinated “as quickly as possible”.

More than 8,300 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been given in Queensland, largely to front-line workers in the south-east, and Palaszczuk said leaders meeting at National Cabinet on Friday were satisfied with the progress to date.

D’Ath and Palaszczuk were speaking after a visit to the $1.1 billion Surgical Treatment and Rehabilitation Service at Brisbane’s Herston Health Precinct. The STARS facility has been treating patients for several weeks, but in the early days of the pandemic was being considered as a future quarantine facility due to its proximity to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.

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