7 Apr 2020

Hereford conference: What happened at one of NZ's biggest Covid-19 clusters?

From Checkpoint, 6:14 pm on 7 April 2020

The NZ Hereford Association president was denied a Covid-19 test despite having shaken over 500 hands during the World Hereford conference last month in Queenstown, he says. 

The conference, which was held between March 9 and March 13, was attended by 400 delegates. On March 11 the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. 

It is now the source of the country's fourth biggest cluster with 35 people testing positive for Covid-19 connected to the event.

NZ Hereford Association president Colin Corney told Checkpoint he has been worried that he might be carrying the virus, though he has not had any symptoms, as he had talked to a lot of people who had tested positive. 

However, he was denied a Covid-19 test on the grounds that he was not showing symptoms.  

"I daresay there's a number of people who don't show symptoms, but may be positive."

The outbreak of Covid-19 cases has been a bitter ending to what was a fantastic conference, Corney said. 

"We had visitors from 18 different countries that joined us to look and see the splendour of New Zealand and understand what we do in New Zealand so well, and that's agriculture.

"We wanted to demonstrate our beautiful country. So we held a pre-conference tour."

About 120 people arrived on March 4, he said. They did a quick tour through the North Island and then joined the conference in Queenstown, which started on March 10.

The conference organisers had been talking to the Ministry of Health as early as February 28 "to double check it was okay for us to carry on… We weren't the only event on. At that stage they advised that everything was okay," Corney told Checkpoint. 

"So we ourselves took different measures to make sure. On all the coaches, we put hand washes, we put alcohol wipes and things for people to use as they hopped on and off the coaches. And we advised people to just ensure they keep good hygiene practices.

"However when you have a conference like this … you've got a lot of people from around the world that haven't seen each other for four years, so obviously they shake hands and they hug."

As the conference went ahead Corney said they were checking on the advice, and at that time New Zealand only had two or three cases. 

"We asked people if they were not well to consider not attending, and during this time there I would have shaken hands with 500 people probably."

None of them seemed unwell, he said. 

After the conference Corney took a group on a tour through the lower South Island. 

"And then on Tuesday, March 17, I got a phone call from my colleague in Australia to advise that a person that had attended back on the Tuesday and Wednesday had tested positive.

"I had four coaches, about 150-odd people. And when I got off the phone, I parked all those coaches up… We were having a fantastic day, the South Island was putting on beautiful weather, lovely countryside, beautiful animals. I got the phone call, so I parked everyone up in a wool shed, no-one was allowed to leave until I got some advice."

He rang the helpline and was advised to drive to the conference members' accommodation.

Health officials called him back before they got back to the accommodation. 

"They had already at that point, spoken to the person in Australia that [had tested positive].

"And they'd gone through all of their travel and everything, and advised us it was unlikely that this person was in a contagious state during the two days they were with us."

Corney said he has been very busy since then, as the cluster from the Hereford conference grew. 

"I have spoken to everyone that I know that has been proven positive and I've spoken to many others that haven't. 

"I had the list and the age group. Anyone that I felt was at an age that could be at risk, I phoned those on numerous days to make sure they were okay."

After returning from the lower South Island tour, Corney said he had a meeting with his general manager and the Ministry of Health. 

"They advised us at that point that our risk factor was low… We said we were thinking [tour members] could go for a coach tour around Christchurch, and were advised at that time that's fine.

"We just went around the city, we didn't do much else but go from the hotel to the to the coach."