27 Jan 2020

Nurses at airports to test passengers arriving from China who feel unwell

8:35 am on 27 January 2020

Nurses are at Auckland Airport this morning ready to test any unwell passengers arriving from China, as New Zealand steps up its response to the novel coronavirus.

People at Beijing Airport, nurses in Auckland and Christchurch are ready to test any unwell passengers arriving from China.

People at Beijing Airport. Nurses are at Auckland and Christchurch airports today ready to test any unwell passengers arriving from China. Photo: AFP

At least 56 people have now died in China and more than 2000 are infected worldwide, including four cases in Australia.

Health authorities have now increased their presence at the border to try stop the virus getting in here, but a public health specialist warns it's more likely than not to eventually arrive in New Zealand.

Up to 1800 people a day arrive in Auckland and Christchurch from China on six flights from Shanghai and Guangzhou. Both cities have dozens of confirmed cases.

Dr Julia Peters from Auckland Regional Public Health Service said from today, passengers will immediately be given information, in both English and Mandarin, about the new coronavirus.

"Passengers who identify as being unwell will be assessed by our public health nurses, and if we have any significant concerns about those people then they'll be further triaged by St John and if necessary transported to Middlemore Hospital," Dr Peters said.

Two nurses and two health protection officers will be on hand at the two airports and the teams will include Mandarin speakers. The health assessments at the airport are not compulsory, and passengers can opt in if they feel ill.

Two flights, from Guangzhou and Shanghai, arrived at Auckland Airport early this morning. Some people from those flights were wearing masks as they came into the international arrivals hall and a passenger, Jennifer, told RNZ people were wearing masks on the plane.

National's health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse said the government has taken too long to implement this.

"It's about a week late. It's a small step in the right direction but I don't think it's enough yet."

He said targeting flights solely from mainland China is not casting the net wide enough.

"We know it's in New South Wales and Victoria... There will be a number of Chinese nationals who will be arriving in New Zealand who haven't flown directly from [China]. Particularly from Wuhan, where there are flights to Sydney, and a number of those will be travelling on to New Zealand," Woodhouse said.

All four cases in Australia have links to the now-locked-down city of Wuhan, where the virus originated, either having visited the city or been in contact with someone who did.

One of these men flew from Wuhan to Guangzhou to Melbourne, and did not show symptoms when he arrived.

Dr Peters said the health teams at Auckland and Christchurch airports are not targeting flights from Australia now, but could do soon.

"As I think we can all see, this is a rapidly evolving situation. We'll be monitoring how this goes over the next few days and looking at what further actions might be required."

Health Minister David Clark stressed the risk of an outbreak here remains low. He said New Zealand is well prepared for these situations - staying active and alert, but not alarmed.

Professor Michael Baker

Dr Michael Baker Photo: Supplied

University of Otago professor of public health Dr Michael Baker said introducing the airport assessments wa an appropriate escalation. However he said it had a major weakness - people can have the virus for a week or even two before they show symptoms.

"People incubating disease walk happily through, they haven't got a fever, haven't got a cough, they feel perfectly okay. That's a real limitation of any screening at the border."

China health authorities have confirmed infected people can transmit the virus before they show symptoms or feel sick.

Dr Baker said depending on how the outbreak develops New Zealand might need to widen the border response.

"That's the next step. You're starting with flights coming directly from China, and then you could start trying to identify people who've come from China but transferred say via Australia."

He warned we may soon be having quite a different conversation about the virus.

"It would be quite surprising if we didn't see cases in New Zealand arriving at the borders, or potentially people who've come across the border and were well, and develop the disease in New Zealand ... We have to prepare for that."

Kiwis stuck in Wuhan

New Zealanders in Wuhan are stuck there for the moment, despite other countries evacuating their citizens.

The city in Hubei Province is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak and Wuhan and several other parts of China are in lockdown, as the government struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

The United States, France and Germany are offering to evacuate their citizens, and Australia is planning the same.

New Zealand's Foreign Ministry said it was responding to four requests for consular assistance but had no plans to offer evacuations.

"We are following developments closely and the situation is under constant review," a spokesperson said.

"New Zealanders in China must comply with all Chinese laws, rules and regulations including the travel restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities to contain the virus."

According to the government website SafeTravel, 369 New Zealanders are registered as being in China, including 16 in Hubei Province.

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