Bloomfield: Important not to lift lockdown too early

    New Zealand Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield speaks during a Covid-19 response update at Parliament yesterday. Photo: Mark Mitchell

    New Zealand enters its second day of level-4 lockdown today – with new rules that make masks mandatory for supermarkets, taxis and using other essential services – after a positive Covid Delta test was returned by a man in Devonport, Auckland, on Tuesday this week.

    Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told RNZ this morning he was fully expecting there would have been new cases overnight, but  had not been advised of them yet.

    He said the cut-off time for overnight reporting was 9am today and expected to be briefed by his officials then.

    “One of the things from the New South Wales outbreak is we’ve seen around 70% of the cases there have been are household contacts and there’s been a lot of testing over the last day or two of those close contacts, particularly within households, so fully expect there will be more cases overnight.”

    One of the new community cases reported yesterday is an Air New Zealand cabin crew worker. But Dr Bloomfield said this case  was picked up during regular routine testing.

    “Of course we’ll be doing the whole genome sequencing, just as we do on all cases just to see if that fits with, or is part of the current outbreak – but it seems likely that that’s a separate coincidental infection.”

    Dr Bloomfield told RNZ’s Morning Report  the large increase in the number of locations of interest was the big thing this morning. He urged people to take a look at the list regularly, particularly essential workers.

    Dr Bloomfield said they were looking for good testing rates around New Zealand before making further decisions. So far all of the cases were in Auckland and offiicials would be looking at wastewater testing when making recommendations going forward.

    “There could be a different decision for the South Island and we’ll put up information about that.”

    He said there had been a big increase in the number of locations of interest with about 70 now around Auckland and the Coromandel.

    “The very important thing now is that people look at those, particularly people who are essential workers, because any essential worker who has been at a location of interest needs to stay at home and get tested.”

    Asked how one of the positive Covid-19 cases seem to go back to  August 3, Bloomfield said none of the sewage testing up until the middle of last week had any detections in the Auckland region.

    “It may well be that one of the cases has described symptoms that go back a period of time, even though their test is only positive now, so this may be the Public Health Unit being inclusive around that particular report.”

    Dr Bloomfield said health officials would be preparing a paper for Cabinet to consider tomorrow regarding the timing of the level 4 lockdown which is currently at least three days around the country and at least seven days in Auckland and Coromandel.

    “Our aim of course would be to have as short as possible lockdown but it’s so important in this situation, we’ve seen that from the different outcomes in different states in Australia, that… you go into lockdown type arrangements quickly and you don’t lift them too early.”

    Dr Bloomfield said they would be looking for good testing rates right around the country and so far all the 10 reported cases had been in Auckland and they were all related, aside from the cabin crew member, as well as looking at the results of wastewater testing which is being done right across New Zealand.

    Dr Bloomfield said he expected they could be able to get back up to the 50,000 vaccines a day despite extra safety measures being necessary due to being in Alert Level 4.

    New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during a Covid-19 response update at Parliament yesterday. Photo: Mark Mitchell

    Long lockdown possible if source not found

    The Delta variant of Covid appears to have been in the New Zealand community for more than two weeks.

    A new case of Covid-19 with a link to the border has been picked up and officials are scrambling to determine whether the infected woman is linked to the current Auckland outbreak.

    It comes as a modelling expert warns if the source of the virus cannot be identified, the country could face weeks of lockdown.

    Late yesterday, the Ministry of Health revealed three new cases, taking the total to 10.

    Two were linked to the current cluster, while one, a woman in her 60s, had been linked to a border case but not yet the latest outbreak. Officials were carrying out interviews to establish any connection.

    Any links could prove a breakthrough in containing the current outbreak, while no link could mean a separate outbreak itself.

    Key test results are expected today showing whether the Auckland strain is the same as three recent cases in MIQ who had the New South Wales variant.

    It has been identified as the NSW Delta, but no match for it has yet been found in New Zealand.

    If it is not one of the remaining three to be tested, and no link from the woman in her 60s is established with the outbreak, a massive hunt will start to re-check all those who recently arrived from Australia.

    Eight cases were linked to the first case reported on Tuesday, a 58-year-old unvaccinated tradesman from Devonport, who travelled to Coromandel over the weekend with his wife, who was fully vaccinated and returned two negative tests.

    One of the latest cases had been linked to a border case but not yet the latest outbreak.

    Four of the cases were in a North Shore flat together – one, a fully vaccinated nurse at Auckland City Hospital and another, a teacher at Avondale College, the country’s third-largest high school.

    Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said they were ‘‘almost certain’’ the Devonport man was not the index case.

    Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said yesterday genome sequencing confirmed the current outbreak was the Delta strain of the virus, and that it came from New South Wales.

    There were no known links to any border cases, apart from three that were going through genomic sequencing: one identified on August 9 and two on August 14.

    Ms Ardern said if no link was found to these cases, officials would need to contact people on recent flights from Australia.

    Top Covid-19 modeller Prof Shaun Hendy said if there was no border link, New Zealanders should prepare for an outbreak already with a median size of 90 to 100 cases – and the possibility the virus has been quietly spreading for weeks.

    Professor Shaun Hendy. Photo: Greg Bowker

    Not everybody experienced severe symptoms, and the vaccination also helped to reduce symptoms, Prof Hendy said.

    ‘‘It stops severe complications but people can still have mild cases, and viral load can still be high in some people,’’ Prof Hendy said.

    Fellow modeller Prof Michael Plank said in the short term, we could expect numbers to grow.

    ‘‘It’s important to remember that when we detect an outbreak like this, we expect to see a lot of cases come in at the start, because that’s our contact tracing catching up with the virus,’’ Prof Plank said.

    ‘‘So we shouldn’t be too alarmed to see a high rate of cases coming in. But that said, obviously, the more cases we pick up in the outbreak, the worse the situation is.

    ‘‘If it turns out a close link can be established with a case who has returned from New South Wales via the MIQ system, the outbreak could be at the small end of the scale.

    ‘‘If the source case travelled to New Zealand from another Australian state not required to go into MIQ, the virus could have been spreading undetected for some time and the outbreak could be much bigger.’’

    Prof Hendy said if no link to the border could be established, it was feasible all recent travellers from NSW would need to be tested and checked if they were the link.

    Not being able to identify the source could extend the three-day lockdown for weeks.

    ‘‘If a short link to the border is not found, we could be looking at a lockdown for multiple weeks.’’

    Yesterday, Ms Ardern announced masks would be required for everyone 12 and over in places such as supermarkets, bus terminals and taxis.

    She also said the vaccination programme would resume from 8am today.

    The programme has come under intense scrutiny as New Zealand ranks the lowest in the OECD.

    As of midnight on Tuesday, 23.4% of the population had been fully vaccinated and 40.6% had had at least one dose.

    It was also revealed yesterday just 40% of the 10,000 frontline police staff had received at least one dose of the vaccine, despite earlier pleas to be given priority.

    – RNZ and NZ Herald