Explainer: how worried should I be about coronavirus in Australia?

Melissa Davey
Photograph: Glenn Hunt/AAP

As of Thursday 27 February, 23 cases of coronavirus cases had been confirmed in Australia, with the federal department of health stating of those, 15 were people who had been in Wuhan, and 8 were passengers from the Diamond Princess repatriation flight from Japan, who are in quarantine in Darwin. 15 people have recovered and the rest are in a stable condition.

Despite the mild symptoms and comparatively few cases in Australia, some people are nonetheless concerned about what they should do if they begin to experience flu-like symptoms given there are 82,164 confirmed cases globally. There have been 2,801 deaths, the vast majority of those in mainland China.

The Australian government and health authorities have encouraged the public to stay calm, with no cases of the virus transmitting between people in Australia. However, on Thursday the government announced they would be escalating their response to the global health issue.

“While the World Health Organisation is yet to declare the nature of the coronavirus and its move towards a pandemic phase, we believe the risk of a global pandemic is very much upon us,” Scott Morrison said.

What should I do if I feel unwell?

Infectious diseases physician and Australian National University professor, Peter Collignon, said unless Australians had recently been in mainland China or had been in close contact with someone with a confirmed case of coronavirus, the advice for anyone feeling unwell was the same as for any other virus.

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“There is fear that’s not reasonable in Australia at the moment,” Collignon, who has also worked with the World Health Organisation, said. “You don’t need to worry, it’s not here and it’s not spreading. All cases in Australia have included an obvious contact with China or someone affected.

“So if you feel sick, do what you always do. Stay at home, ensure good handwashing, and take whatever makes you feel better whether that’s Panadol or your mother’s chicken broth.”

On Friday the government’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said while the virus was more infectious than influenza, it was generally more mild.

What if I have been to China recently?

Those who have been in China in the past 14 days or who know they have been in contact with someone with the virus should isolate themselves by staying home for 14 days, the department of health said.

If symptoms develop during this period, it is best to call a GP to book an appointment and alert them that you may be experiencing coronavirus so that staff can prepare ahead of time. If you believe your symptoms are coronavirus and warrant an emergency visit, it is still best to call ahead, mentioning travel history and symptoms.

You do not need to isolate yourself if you have only travelled in Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.

Australia is well prepared for such viruses, which is why it has been well contained here. Information has been provided by the federal government in English and Chinese based on the latest medical advice, including through Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, WeChat and Chinese newspapers. Travellers arriving to Australia are being screened, and health departments are monitoring close contacts of confirmed cases every day.

Should I start wearing a face mask in public?

While the virus has led to shortages of face masks and hand sanitiser, Collignon said face masks to specifically prevent coronavirus were unnecessary. The virus appeared to spread more readily via direct contact rather than through air droplets, he said, adding it was important to ensure there were enough masks for those who needed them including immunocompromised people and health workers.

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Increased awareness of the symptoms had led to more people being tested for coronavirus and also influenza, which Collignon said may make it appear as though influenza was appearing early in 2020.

He said while coronavirus, with a death rate of about 2% of confirmed cases, had a higher death rate than influenza, this was likely an overestimate because many mild cases would remain undetected. Many cases are asymptomatic. By comparison, the Sars virus had a global fatality rate of 11% by the end of the outbreak.

“We haven’t seen widespread transmission like influenza spreads, we have hope of controlling this,” he said. “The commonwealth is taking on a centralised role in monitoring the situation and sharing information and their advice has been consistent. There is no evidence this is spreading through the community.”

Anyone with concerns can call the coronavirus health information line on 1800 020 080.