Commonwealth Department of Health Briefing: Bushfires, smoke and heat

The following summary was prepared by the Australian Hospitals and Healthcare Association.

National Incident Room has been operational since November, with activity stepped up since 1 January.

Commonwealth Department of Health has participated this week in the National Crisis Committee meeting, with the aim of ensuring coordinated health response.

Mental health: The Department is working with PHNs, and specifically those in the bushfire-affected regions, to ascertain mental health service requirements including additional workforce requirements, and services to complement those available through state and territory health departments.  Government is looking at a longer-term mental health response, with an update on stepped up activity and additional resourcing to be provided next week.

The Prime Minister will be announcing more details re a substantial mental health package.

Smoke exposure and provision of masks: Acting Chief Medical Officer has worked with state and territory chief health officers regarding management of smoke exposure and the use of masks. National stockpile of masks has been made available in the last week – 3.5 million have been distributed to NSW, Vic, ACT and certain occupational groups (eg Australia Post, first responders).  Small masks can be used for teenagers and above. There are no masks suitable for children.

More information will be released later today regarding prolonged exposure to smoke. The Australian Health Protection Committee’s Environmental Health sub-committee is tasked with undertaking additional work, and Minister Hunt will make an announcement soon regarding research investment.  First responders are being prioritised in this work.

Acting Chief Medical Officer notes that there hasn’t been a significant increase in ED presentations for bushfire-related matters; there are some anecdotal reports from primary health providers including GPs and pharmacists re increased presentations. It is unlikely that these will be appropriately coded, and the Dept recognises that data development may require focus in future research planning.

Water supplies and outbreak of disease:  No reports have been received re contaminated water supplies and outbreaks of infectious disease.

Return to school:  the Department is working on plans and advice relating to children with asthma returning to school. Plans are being made for immunisation requirements for the return to school.

Primary care services and concerns:  First point of contact should be the Primary Health Network in the relevant region.  Next point of contact (incl for urgent enquiries) is the National Incident Room at:

Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) and National Critical Care Centre, Darwin: 21 staff from NT, WA, Qld and Vic are working closely with Australian Defence Force in NSW and Vic.

Offers of assistance and emergency management principles:  Health emergency response is integrated through the Command, Control and Coordination response being led through an integrated national emergency response plan. All volunteers through AUSMAT are trained to work within the national emergency response plan, and Dept of Health advise that experience from previous disaster situations is that trained volunteers are better equipped to respond than ‘spontaneous’ volunteers (including with regard to volunteer safety and indemnity issues).

Aged care:  Dept has been in close contact with aged care services in bushfire-affected regions; approximately 750 aged care residents from around 20 facilities in NSW and Victoria have been relocated either to other residential facilities.  There has been a high degree of cooperation amongst home care providers and the Commonwealth Home Support Program to provide care in alternative locations, eg motels and evacuation centres; and prioritising requirements such as wound care.  Correspondence regarding use of home care packages in bushfire affected areas have been suspended to minimise confusion.  Offers of assistance are being accepted and coordinated through the MyAgedCare website.

Emergency access for prescription-only medicines:  NSW, ACT and Vic have increased the quantities of prescription-only medicines that can be provided in emergency situations for up to a month.  Dept is working to ensure up to 70% PBS subsidised medicines can be supplied by community pharmacies across Australia under these emergency provisions – expected to be operational by Monday 13 January (Section 100 drugs will be excluded).  Dept of Health will upload continuous dispensing information to its website this weekend.

If there are continuing problems with emergency medicines supplies, the Department can be contacted at:

Coordination of offers of workforce and other assistance:  Rural workforce agencies in NSW, Vic and SA are coordinating arrangements for offers of assistance for locum placements. 

Contact details:  Rural Workforce Agency Victoria 0393497800 ; Rural Doctors NSW  0249248000 ; Rural Doctors SA   08 82348277 

Dept is encouraging financial donations rather than donations of goods (including medical supplies).  Contact details: Vic   Red Cross

Long-term planning: the Department will be working with the Bushfire Recovery Agency to evaluate current response, and develop longer term response, recovery and resilience planning.

Contacts for more information: all Commonwealth relevant web pages will be coordinated under the National Bushfire Recovery Agency website.  See  Health statements are available at: