19 Mar 2020

Covid-19. Why does New Zealand need to 'test, test, test' ?

From Nine To Noon, 9:10 am on 19 March 2020

Health Minister David Clark has said routine testing for Covid-19 across the country is expected be rolled out as part of testing for the common flu. 

Earlier this week the World Health Organisation (WHO) called on all countries to ramp up their testing programs as the best way to slow the advance of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Photo: Wikimedia commons

In New Zealand only about 500 tests had been done until this week - though another 500 tests were done yesterday. 

Overseas South Korea's carried out more than a quarter of a million tests - in Italy it's about 150,000 -- in the UK it's 50,000 and they're all similar sized countries. 

Claire Standley, assistant research professor at the Centre for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University in the US, told Nine to Noon a large scale pandemic like this had been predicted for some time, but they hoped it wouldn’t arrive. 

“There’s been a lot of efforts by the WHO and other agencies to try and prepare countries for this kind of event in the hope it wouldn’t get to a pandemic stage, but unfortunately it’s not much of a surprise.” 

Prof Standley said testing is essential for the information needed to guide public health responses. 

“If you don’t know what the extent of transmission is in your country or your local area, then it’s really difficult to understand what the impact will be on the healthcare system and whether the strategies you’re employing are actually having the desired effect.”

Follow our live coverage for the latest news on Covid-19 here.

She said South Korea was a good example of deploying widespread testing - including drive through facilities - and aggressive contact tracing. 

“South Korea had the experience of being more affected by SARS than the UK or Italy back in 2003, so they understood the need to rapidly deploy things like testing and isolation of affected patients in order to prevent transmission.” 

While China’s methods in containing the spread of the disease have been put under scrutiny for human rights abuses, Prof Standley said it certainly bought the rest of the world a bit of time to prepare for the outbreak. 

“I think we need to balance the social impacts of some of these extreme measures against the public health benefit, and certainly that’s what we’ve seen in other parts of the world. But there’s no doubt that what China has done, from a purely public health perspective, has prevented a substantial number of cases.” 

Prof Standley said that New Zealand has a good opportunity, with our low number of cases, to be very proactive in identifying contacts and making sure they isolate. 

“As the number of confirmed cases grows and you do start seeing signs of community transmission, it becomes much more labour intensive to keep up that kind of approach. It really then becomes a policy decision about balancing those intensive resources against other uses for those resources.” 

She said if New Zealand can slow the rate of transmission, our health system will better cope with patients presenting at hospital and prevent the kind of situation that Italy had where hospitals became completely overwhelmed. 

Prof Standley said that while we should be doing all we can to prevent the spread of the virus, it’s inevitable there will be more cases in the coming weeks and months. 

“In all cases, the models are telling a really scary story in terms of the numbers of cases, particularly once hospitals and health systems are overrun, the number of deaths this virus would lead to.

“There’s a very real human disaster that could unfold here, so it’s really on everyone - including strong leadership from national and local level authorities - to try and prevent that from happening. 

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