The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is causing confusion and many questions about how it may affect people's lives. We sifted through the official advice on health and travel to answer the most common questions.
What are the symptoms of the coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Symptoms can range from mild respiratory-type illness to pneumonia.
Early symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, chills, body aches or headache and a shortness of breath. Some people will recover easily and others may get very sick very quickly.
Should you experience any mild symptoms and are concerned, contact your GP in the first instance and seek advice on whether you should be tested, or contact the Victorian hotline on 1800 675 398.
Anyone experiencing severe or life-threatening symptoms should ring 000 and when doing so, advise them of your symptoms so paramedics can take appropriate precautions.
Where can I get tested for coronavirus? Should I get tested?
If you experience any of the milder symptoms of the virus, then contact the Department of Health and Human Services hotline on 1800 675 398. If you need to see your GP, make sure the surgery knows of your symptoms before presenting.
However, for anyone with severe symptoms suggestive of pneumonia (fever and difficulty breathing, or frequent, severe or productive cough), GPs have been advised not to collect specimens and instead refer the patient to the Canberra Hospital emergency department.
GPs unable to take specimens from patients may also refer you to an an alternative collection centre.
Patients attending their GP with symptoms may be required to wear a mask, be isolated from other patients, or wait outside until the practitioner is ready to see them.
You may also be referred to the fever clinic at Ballarat Hospital for testing.
Who is being asked to self-isolate?
Anyone suspected of being in close contact with someone who has contracted the virus, or who is from, has visited, or has been in transit through any of the countries subject to the current World Health Organisation high-risk travel bans (see details below).
Close contact is being defined as:
1) Someone who has had greater than 15 minutes face-to-face contact in any setting with a confirmed case in the period extending from 24 hours before symptom onset in the confirmed case, or;
2) Someone who shared a closed space (e.g. a waiting room) with a confirmed case for a prolonged period (more than two hours) in the period extending from 24 hours before the onset of symptoms.
Airline cabin staff, for instance, might come into contact with someone on a flight who has the virus through handing them a meal or a refreshment - but this would be what an employer, such as Virgin Australia, describes as a "casual" contact.
However, a passenger who sits in the same row, or two rows of seats immediately to the front and rear of that person, would potentially have more prolonged exposure and may be required to self-isolate, as was the case recently with a Defence officer from Sydney who travelled to Canberra by commercial aircraft from Sydney, then later tested positive to the virus.
What is the test for the virus?
The basic test is an oral specimen swab(s) taken from the upper respiratory tract.
Patients with more exacerbated symptoms such as fever and breathlessness and/or a severe cough may require to be isolated and tested further.
There is no diagnostic blood test at this time. It is likely that a serological test will be available at some later point.
Under the federal government's latest arrangements, people who are vulnerable (such as people who are immuno-suppressed or elderly) or those with suspected COVID-19 cases can get advice over the phone via the national hotline on 1800 020 080.
Can you go to the doctor while in self-isolation? Can you have medication delivered?
If you are self-isolating but you need to leave your home for medical attention, you must call the Communicable Disease Control Information line on (02) 5124 9213 during business hours or (02) 9962 4155 after hours.
This is so that appropriate and safe travel arrangements can be made for your arrival at the health service.
If you urgently require prescription medication to be delivered to your home while in self-isolation, in the first instance seek advice from the prescribing practitioner.
If you know you will run out of your medication while self-isolated, you should arrange ahead of time for your medication to be delivered to your home by a family member, friend or your pharmacy.
Tell them you are quarantining yourself at home and to notify you when they arrive at your home but to leave the medications at your front door.
Can you get groceries delivered if you're in self-isolation? What about Uber Eats?
If the people you live with are unable to get groceries or if you live alone, friends or family living outside of your household can deliver groceries to your home. They should leave the groceries at your door.
Some grocery stores offer home delivery for groceries ordered online, including the main supermarket chains.
If your groceries must be signed for, ideally this should be done by someone who is not in isolation. If this is not possible, you should wear a mask and wash your hands before answering the door.
If you are in isolation, does everyone in your house have to isolate too?
It is important that those in self-isolation avoid contact with other family members as much as possible to avoid potentially transmitting the virus. Practising good hand and respiratory hygiene is the best defence against the spread of the virus.
This includes washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser if your hands are not visibly dirty.
Do this before handling food and before eating, as well as after using the toilet. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
Avoid close contact with others.
Cough/sneeze into your elbow or directly into a tissue, throw the tissue in a bin, and wash your hands.
Surfaces which are touched regularly, such as door handles, kitchen and bathroom areas, remote controls and phones are cleaned frequently using detergent and water or a detergent-based cleaner.
Others that live with you are not required to be isolated unless they meet one of the isolation criteria. If you develop symptoms and are suspected to have coronavirus, they will be classified as close contacts and will need to be isolated.
I'm a casual worker and have to self-isolate. What are my rights?
This remains an active point of discussion and negotiation between government, unions and employer representatives.
The Fair Work Ombudsman currently advises "employees and employers to work together to find appropriate solutions that suit the needs of individual workplaces and staff. This may include taking different forms of leave (or) working from home".
Under work health and safety laws, employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace (as far as is reasonably practical).
Casual workers are entitled to two days of unpaid carer's leave and two days of unpaid compassionate leave per occasion. Any further leave requirements would require a negotiation with your employer. Assess your entitlements at www.fairwork.gov.au
Do I have to take sick leave or can I work from home?
This will depend on the nature of your employment and individual employment conditions, and is best discussed with your employer or HR department. Employees with outstanding sick leave may be required to use that leave first.
If an employee wants to stay at home as a precaution against being exposed to coronavirus, they will need to make a request to work from home (if possible) or to take some form of paid or unpaid leave, such as annual leave or long service leave.
These requests are subject to the normal leave application processes in the workplace.
Where can I self-isolate?
At home, or anywhere where you can quarantine yourself from other people so that they do not come into contact with droplets or sneezes, or where the potentially infected person may have touched surfaces like doorknobs or table surfaces.
Being quarantined at home means that you need to stay at home for the full 14-day period. You cannot go to work, school, or public areas (such as shops or cafés/restaurants) and should not use public transport, ride share or taxis. You also need to tell people not to visit you while you are quarantined.
If you are a visitor, you may be required to remain quarantined in a hotel or other suitable accommodation, as you will not be allowed to travel on public transport (including buses, trains, or domestic airlines) for 14 days.
What do I do if I'm in a sharehouse?
If you are unwell with symptoms, and other people are living or staying with you, you need to consider their health and avoid contact with them. You should wear a surgical mask to minimise risk to others and move quickly through any common areas.
Assess your logical options to protect your health and the health of others, which will depend on the type of accommodation, and the size and isolation of shared spaces (such as bathrooms) within that accommodation.
Contact with shared surfaces should be avoided, and those that are shared should be cleaned frequently using detergent and water or a detergent-based cleaner.
If there is alternative accommodation where you can relocate for a short time and self-isolate in comfort and security without potentially transmitting the virus to others, and while observing the required high levels of personal hygiene, then consider this option carefully.
Practising good hand and respiratory hygiene is the best defence against the spread of the virus.
Airlines are having a fire sale at the moment. Should I buy a cheap ticket?
All travel advice issued by the Australian government is under very close review in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
Check with your travel agent, airline, cruise operator, accommodation provider and travel insurance provider to consider your options regarding any potential changes in services. Insurers may not cover the travel risk, so check first.
Understand the risks you're taking in travelling and that efforts to control the spread of the virus may cause further travel disruptions and restrictions, and/or invalidate travel insurance.
Be aware there are high risks of contracting the virus if you come into close contact with those who are already infected but may not yet know it.
Airlines must report passengers on board showing signs of an infectious disease, including fever, sweats or chills. Ill travellers are met on arrival by biosecurity officers who make an assessment and take necessary actions, such as isolation and referral to hospital, where required.
Cabin crews are maintaining high hygiene standards in the airline cabins, including practising proper hand-sanitising procedures and cough etiquette. Masks and hand sanitisers should be available on board all flights.
Airline passengers need to be aware that if they should be on the same flight as a person who has contracted the virus, they may be contacted later by health authorities and asked to self-isolate afterwards as a precaution. This applies to both international and domestic flights.
Keep up to date at www.smartraveller.gov.au
What happens if you are on Newstart and have to go to Centrelink appointments?
Services Australia advises that under new arrangements, any customers visiting their service centres will be asked some key health questions by staff.
Anyone in the high-risk categories, such as someone who has returned from mainland China, Iran, Italy or South Korea in the past two weeks, or if they have been in close contact with someone who has been confirmed as having COVID-19, "will be asked to leave and encouraged to use online or phone services to conduct their business".
It has also confirmed that people who have been isolated in their home "on the advice of a medical professional or government authority" will be given an "exemption from their mutual obligation requirements".
What happens if you are attending Catholic Mass and Holy Communion?
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has urged attendees to use caution and "consider their own health, including any potential to infect others with a contagious disease" before attending Mass.
Holy Communion can only be distributed in the hand rather than on the tongue. Parishes have been told to "cease distributing Holy Communion from the chalice until further notice".
Holy water has been removed from stoops at the doors of churches to reduce the possibility of transmission of the virus.
"When exchanging the sign of peace, individuals should avoid shaking hands but say 'peace be with you' and offer a smile, wave, nod or bow," a statement issued by the conference said.
Ministers have been told to avoid contact with a communicant's hands.
Where are current travel restrictions? What does restricted travel mean?
The Australian government has issued "do not travel" advice for China, Iran, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and, more recently, Italy. Foreign nationals from these countries, or anyone who has visited or transited through these countries, will not be allowed to enter Australia for 14 days.
Australian citizens and permanent residents will still be able to enter, as will their immediate family members (spouses, legal guardians or dependants only), but they will be required to self-isolate at home for 14 days.
Limited exemptions exist for airline and maritime crew where they have taken "appropriate precautionary measures".
Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand are considered at 'moderate risk'. This list is being regularly reviewed.
Many countries have introduced entry restrictions and screening measures at border crossings and transport hubs, including some which have not had cases of COVID-19. You may not be allowed to enter or transit, or you may be quarantined based on your previous location and symptoms.
Entry, exit and transit conditions can change at short notice. Not all officials or transport providers are applying their policies consistently. Contact the nearest embassy or consulate of the countries you are visiting before you travel.
More comprehensive advice is available from www.homeaffairs.gov.au
Is taking a cruise now too risky to consider?
The Australian government is advising travellers to reconsider taking an overseas cruise at this time, particularly if you have underlying health concerns.
If in doubt, ask your doctor for advice before travelling.
In recent weeks, a number of cruise ships have been quarantined in various ports around the world.
Some countries are not allowing passengers to disembark, or denying entry to cruise ships altogether, so a cruise itinerary may be subject to drastic change at short notice.
The situation is fluid and you can expect further disruptions.
Should you choose to cruise, ensure you receive the latest travel advice for all your destinations and transit points, and subscribe for updates.