By Lydia Lynch
Jeannette Young has served as Queensland’s Chief Health Officer since 2005. In fact, she is the longest-serving CHO in Australia.
She has advised four premiers through six epidemics, including MERS, swine flu and the 2009 dengue outbreak.
But until the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus this year, Dr Young has remained a largely unrecognised health bureaucrat.
She began her career as a doctor at Westmead Hospital in western Sydney, after graduating from medicine at the University of Sydney.
With a self-described short attention span, she decided to go into fast-paced emergency medicine, where patients are treated quickly then moved on.
Pressured by the breakdown of her first marriage and the shiftwork required in an emergency department, Dr Young packed up and moved to Rockhampton to start work as the hospital’s medical services director.
“You couldn’t get childcare then, you just couldn’t, so I went into medical management instead.
“I had four years in Rockhampton and it was so much fun, I was young and I was single … it was wonderful.”
Then in the late 1990s, she took the same job at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, where she spent seven years.
“And then [Jayant] Patel happened in Bundaberg and the director-general asked me to come here [as chief health officer].
“I didn’t really want to because I liked my job at PA, but I thought I better try something different.
“I have loved it, some of the things I’ve been able to do … I’ve been so lucky, I’ve been here 15 years.”
Since Dr Young became the state’s chief doctor in 2005, she has advised former premiers Peter Beattie, Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman. She now has the ear of Annastacia Palaszczuk.
“I’ve been really lucky because they’ve always listened,” she says.
“I mean, I’ve been in such a fortunate position to be able to directly advise ministers and premiers and for them genuinely to listen, and they do. They really do.”
It was a call to Ms Palaszczuk on Wednesday, January 22 – 100 days ago on Friday – that would start the state’s unprecedented response to the coronavirus.
“On the 22nd of January, I thought, ‘now, this is going to be pretty awful’. I hoped I was wrong and that I was overinterpreting the information,” she says. “Unfortunately, I think I was right to be wary.
“I can remember going into that weekend thinking ‘this might be the last weekend of sanity before this all blows’, and it blew on the Saturday.”
On Saturday, January 25, Australia confirmed its first case of COVID-19. Three days later, the virus invaded Queensland, and by March, the state was recording dozens of new cases a day.
“To be honest with you, I was really worried. I thought, ‘this is the start and it’s going to be a nightmare’,” Dr Young said.
“So my advice to the Premier was, ‘we have to throw everything at this, absolutely everything and anything’.”
Dr Young told Ms Palaszczuk to shut down schools on March 26.
She says while evidence showed schools were not a high-risk environment for the spread of the virus, closing them down would help people understand the gravity of the situation.
“If you go out to the community and say, ‘this is so bad, we can’t even have schools, all schools have got to be closed’, you are really getting to people,” Dr Young says.
“So sometimes it’s more than just the science and the health, it’s about the messaging.
“So my advice to the Premier was, ‘we’ve got to do it. It’ll be awful, but we’ve got to do it’.
“But that was critical, decreasing the number of kids who go to school.”
Dr Young has backed the Premier’s decision to hold off reopening classrooms until May 15 while the Education Department works out how to keep students, parents and teachers away from one another.
“They’ve got to sort out that classes don’t merge, if possible, because then if we have a case, we could then just ask that whole class to be quarantined, and not the whole school.
“They’ve got to stagger their lunchtimes and morning teas, and they can’t have big assemblies, so there’s an awful lot of work schools need to do, which they’re doing because they’ve got time to do it now, before they can safely open.”
Dr Young believes that decision is a major factor in containing Queensland’s new cases.
“Some people will drop their kids off [at school] and they go out, this way it’s keeping people at home.”
As we talk, Dr Young rushes over to her desk and rifles through a stack of paperwork to show some Queensland Health modelling.
The data paints a harrowing picture of the 12,500 Queenslanders who would have been killed by the virus had it not been contained.
And while Queensland has done a “tremendous” job of helping to slow the spread, the work is not finished.
Some restrictions will be eased from Friday night, but the reopening of pubs and clubs is a while off.
“I think that’ll be quite a way down the track, but sport, I want to get people playing sport again for so many different reasons.
“I want kids to go to school. They’re really, really important things to get sorted.”
The walls of Dr Young’s office, in the heart of Brisbane’s CBD, are lined with awards, degrees and framed newspaper cartoons.
She also has a no-smoking sign displayed, given to her by Health Minister Steven Miles after cigarettes were banned in national parks in 2017.
It is a symbol of one of her three major achievements in the role of which she is most proud.
Dr Young pushed for Queensland’s tough anti-smoking legislation and the policy to ensure free nicotine replacement was available for vulnerable people.
“All of that work has been enormous, and we’ve just seen the rates of smoking absolutely plummet,” she says.
Her second major achievement is to get more children immunised.
“When I became chief health officer, we were still getting kids that were getting hepatitis B. It was awful, and our immunisation rates were terrible.
“So I brought in the school program so that every kid could get vaccinated, and now, you know, Queensland is leading the country in terms of its childhood immunisation numbers.”
Her third-biggest impact on Queensland’s health system is improving the state’s patient retrieval system.
Before Dr Young became the CHO, individual hospitals had to work out how they would move critically ill patients to larger, better-resourced hospitals.
“Now we can move anyone from anywhere in the state in a fully kitted-out ICU environment. All of our helicopters and planes are kitted out at the same level as an ICU bed, in terms of staff and equipment,” she says.
“So that one was really, really important to me – that every Queenslander needs to have access to the same excellent level of care, that it couldn’t just be dependent on where you live.
“I mean, it is not me that has done them all, I am part of a team, but I feel I’ve had a role to get them going.”
The two people she is advising, the Premier and the Health Minister, say the state is indebted to her work.
“Dr Young’s clear advice during this pandemic has been crucial,” Ms Palaszczuk says.
“Her long and important experience is invaluable.”
Mr Miles says the Chief Health Officer “deserves a massive thank you”.
“Dr Young has worked tirelessly for more than three months – every day and night – to keep Queenslanders safe,” he says. “I’ve seen it first-hand. And Queenslanders have seen it on their TV screens.”
For the past 100 days, Dr Young has become probably the most powerful person in Queensland – a title she is reluctant to hold.
“No, don’t say that. No, I’m not,” she says. “I’m here to advise.”