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Clean Air For Our Kids A Crucial Lesson From The Pandemic

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport launched an inquiry into Long COVID and Repeated COVID Infections on 1 September 2022.  

After receiving more than 500 submissions, and holding four public hearings, the report of that inquiry, Sick and Tired: Casting a Long Shadow (the Inquiry Report) was tabled in the House of Representatives eleven months ago.  

The report included nine topline recommendations regarding the need to clarify how we define long COVID, preventing COVID by improving our vaccination and communication strategies, providing antiviral support to those who will benefit most from it, and ensuring that affected people receive support they need – via education for GPs to diagnose long COVID, via mental health supports, extended telehealth services, and funding for partnerships with state health departments to develop long COVID clinics.  

The Committee also recommended establishment of an advisory board, including ventilation experts and building code regulators, to better equip buildings with safety measures preventing COVID transmissions, and funding for development of guidelines for GPs for treatment of people affected by Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).  

The Minister replied to the report last week - 10 months after it was tabled. The government’s response increases the rebate for Medicare-funded rebates for chronic disease plans - but does not provide funding to inform what those plans should include. It does not provide for funding for establishment of a national COVID database or dedicated long COVID clinics; for guidelines for diagnosis of long COVID; for pharmacists to be allowed to dispense anti-virals without sick patients having to consult a GP first; or for better treatment of ME/CFS.  

Perhaps most disappointingly, the government has not adopted the Committee’s recommendation that it establish and fund a multidisciplinary advisory body including ventilation experts, architects, aerosol scientists, industry, building code regulators and public health experts to oversee an assessment of the impact of poor indoor air quality and ventilation on the economy, with particular consideration given to high-risk settings such as hospitals, aged care facilities, childcare and educational settings. We need national indoor air quality standards for use in Australia.  

Clean air is essential to prevent repeat COVID19 infection and resultant long COVID. Other countries are moving to set targets for unfiltered indoor CO2 levels (as a proxy for ventilation) in public spaces, such as schools, restaurants, and workplaces. For example, Belgium has recently passed legislation that requires all public places to monitor their indoor air quality and install a CO2 monitor visible to the public. In New Zealand, all schools have been supplied with CO2 monitors - and air purifiers are used when ventilation is insufficient.  

Australia should follow by mandating and championing indoor air quality standards and other clean indoor air technologies. Air monitoring and filtration equipment should be seen as being as necessary as smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in public buildings. We need to be confident that, when the next outbreak of a severe airborne virus hits us, our kids can safely go to school and that we will be safe to go to work, in residential aged care and other public settings. 

On Monday, I asked the Health Minister a question in Question Time about this matter. I asked:  
“The Health Committee’s report into long COVID concluded that we need national indoor air quality standards to improve the safety of indoor spaces and reduce transmission of COVID19 and other infectious diseases. The government’s response last week acknowledged but did not adopt that recommendation. How do you propose that we can keep our kids safe at school during the next outbreak of a severe airborne virus?”  
His response was disappointing.  

The Minister had no answer to the question of how the government plans to protect schoolchildren from airborne viruses. He referred to state standards. It is true that Australia’s states and territories have, during the pandemic, developed guidance on ventilation and air quality to assist with reducing COVID19 transmission.  However, implementing this guidance is voluntary and different jurisdictions have taken different approaches, resulting in inconsistencies across Australia. The Minister also referred to a symposium being held by interested medical professionals in this House in three weeks. Those same professionals told our Committee last year that we need these clear air standards. We already know what they'll say in three weeks. The government needs to listen to expert medical advice and act on it to protect our kids and help keep them safe at school.  


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