DHB on the hunt for covert Covid-19 on West Coast

3:14 pm on 5 May 2020

It is exactly one month today since the West Coast recorded its last case of Covid-19, but health authorities say random testing for the virus will continue for some time.

Covid-19 testing in Reefton this morning.

Covid-19 testing in Reefton this morning. Photo: Supplied

On 29 March the Coast recorded the country's first death from the viral infection, when 73-year-old Anne Guenole died in Greymouth Hospital.

The Kaiata woman's family is still at a loss to explain how she might have caught Covid - and how none of her family or close contacts were infected, despite sitting by her bedside for days.

Guenole was one of just five cases recorded on the West Coast - none of them in Buller district - since New Zealand went into lockdown at midnight on 25 March.

Yesterday, for the first time since the pandemic arrived in New Zealand, there were no new cases nationally.

The low level of infection has sparked calls from West Coast mayors to ease restrictions locally to alert level 2, and allow the region's economy to pick up now, before further damage is done.

Health authorities are cautious however, and testing is under way to find out if covert Covid-19 might be lurking undetected in the community.

West Coast District Health Board workers had throat-swabbed 477 people by 18 April, and a mobile unit was in Reefton and Maruia Springs today, offering swabs to anyone willing to be tested.

The random checks, known as sentinel testing, had so far drawn a blank, medical officer of health Dr Cheryl Brunton said, but were necessary.

"Sentinel testing helps us develop a better understanding of how and where Covid-19 is ... we are currently finalising our plans for when and where future sentinel testing will take place across the Coast and will provide further information to the community shortly," Brunton says.

The announcement of no new cases yesterday, and again today, was a "wonderful symbolic milestone" but the ongoing trend was more important, Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker said.

"This milestone is also in the context of a steady decline in cases since a peak on April 5, which is also a positive sign that containment measures are working in New Zealand.

"At the same time, complacency is also the enemy when trying to eliminate this virus. The threat of Covid-19 has been consistently under-estimated across the globe, with tragic consequences. Outbreaks are possible at any time and can develop rapidly before they are detected, taking many weeks to contain", Prof Baker warned.

Otago University psychologist Christopher Gale said now that case numbers of the coronavirus were dwindling, it was time DHBs turned their attention to people's psychological health and those whose physical health needs had been set aside for five weeks.

"What we need to consider as we move out of the initial crisis is how we can minimise disability due to the lockdown. There have been medical procedures stopped, routine care delayed, and in some cases cancer treatments delayed, all of which can lead to long-term problems. People have not been able to access mental health services or their GPs."

The report that there were no new cases was heartening but it would give people a sense that the risk of Covid was lower, Gale said.

"Sadly, we don't know this. We have difficulty estimating the effectiveness of level 3 social distancing, and as time goes on there is a certain level of fatigue with the restrictions, made worse for some by increasing conflict and stress at home, for others by worries about their business and job, and in others by isolation, anxiety and despair.

"Fortunately, we have been spared the death rate of parts of the Northern Hemisphere. We should not be complacent, but we need to think about how much restriction for how long is tolerable by the majority of New Zealanders, and what costs an extension of the lockdown would bring. These costs are not merely in money, but in all the measures of distress for people in our society - which may, tragically, include increased deaths from other causes."

West Coast DHB chairman Rick Barker said the board was hoping to restart cancelled services this week.

"Hopefully we have just a week to go till we go down to level 2, and we can begin clearing the backlog and at the same time begin the 10-week process of moving to Te Nikau [Hospital] - it will be a big load for staff, and it will take a while to sort," Barker said.

DHB general manager Phillip Wheble said 110 outpatient clinics had been postponed during the lockdown, affecting 490 patients, although telephone consultations had been useful in managing some patients.

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