27 Jan 2020

China coronavirus checks: 'Looking for a needle in a haystack'

1:51 pm on 27 January 2020

No passengers on flights from China to Auckland this morning volunteered to be checked by medical staff - and health authorities have no powers to quarantine anyone suspected of having the new coronavirus.

Passengers from international flights at Auckland Airport on Monday 27 January, after flights from Guangzhou and Shanghai had touched down. Some people were wearing masks.

Passengers this morning at Auckland Airport, where flights from Guangzhou and Shanghai had touched down. Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

This morning, health professionals were for the first time standing at the ready at Christchurch and Auckland airports to hand out information and check any unwell passengers from flights arriving from China.

The virus, which has killed 56 people so far, is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in Wuhan, Hubei. Cases have been confirmed in Japan, Taiwan, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, the US, and France.

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.

Most passengers coming into Auckland on flights from China were wearing masks and were handed pamphlets by health officers with information about what do if they were unwell. One woman, Jennifer, told RNZ passengers were wearing the masks while on the plane.

Auckland Regional Public Health Service director and incident controller William Rainger told Nine to Noon that no-one had volunteered to be checked so far today and authorities had no power to compel them to, even if someone was suspected of having the disease.

"Technically, it is not quarantineable but we would be working with suspected cases, and people who had been exposed to the suspected cases, and asking them to stay in isolation for a period of time and we would support them in that," Dr Rainger said.

Border protection staff had been briefed on the outbreak and ambulance and hospitals staff were on standby if any passengers were suspected of being infected, Dr Rainger said.

The latest information suggested any infected person was likely to infect two others, a much lower infection rate than measles which was one to 15, he said.

Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay said the news that had come in overnight that the coronavirus could infect people during incubation had yet to be reviewed.

"That's not something we have been informed about officially. My team are looking at what we have received and exactly what the facts are in terms of what's known about infectivity before symptoms. Yes, it makes it much more challenging to contain and manage this virus. But we need to be really clear about what the facts are.

"The nurses are there along with other public health staff to make sure people coming of the planes from China are aware of the symptoms of coronavirus. We expect that anyone off that plane is already well aware because they have come from China."

There is now a facility at the airport for people found to have high temperatures to be directed to.

'Needle in a haystack'

One of the challenges was that a high temperatures could be a symptom of other infections. At present it was influenza season in the Northern Hemisphere, and people with high temperatures were more likely to have the flu than coronavirus, McElnay said.

"It's a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack."

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The only test for coronavirus - a blood test - takes a couple of days for results to be returned, but New Zealand doesn't have the ability to do that test yet. Samples must be sent to Australia.

McElnay said the test would be available here later in the week.

She said the situation was being reviewed daily and the evolving situation was what led to the positioning of staff at the airport on Monday.

Information in Chinese languages and Chinese language speaking staff were on hand to help at the airport and via Healthline.

Prime Minister on the government response

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said cabinet would discuss the virus on Tuesday.

It would go through a process to ensure coronavirus was listed in New Zealand as a notifiable disease.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the RNZ Auckland studio for Morning Report. 30 October 2017.

Ardern in the RNZ Auckland studio during a previous appearance on Morning Report. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

"That is not getting in the way of the response, it's just a more formal part of the process we need to go through."

Dr Rainger told Nine to Noon making it a notifiable disease would give them more powers to isolate and quarantine people who might have been exposed, as well as monitor their health.

Virologist Lance Jennings told Nine to Noon it was important to make the disease notifiable. Although it did not appear to be as deadly as the previous SARS and MERS strains, there was still much to learn about it, he said.

Ardern said the government made no apologies for the fact that "even though we do not have a case to date in New Zealand we are really rolling out everything we can including work at the border... We have taken the extra steps of putting health officials at the airport even though we don't have direct flights from (Wuhan)."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) hadn't contacted Ardern about evacuating any New Zealanders from the Wuhan area, she said.

"That's something I'll talk to MFAT about."

MFAT said it was responding to four requests for consular assistance but had no plans for evacuations.

Sixteen New Zealanders are registered in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is the main city.

Asked about the National Party's criticism of the government's response to coronavirus, she said they were "doing what oppositions do".

Student to self-quarantine

An international student arriving in Auckland this morning planned to wear a face mask for the next 10 days.

The man, who didn't want to be named, arrived on the flight from Guangzhou.

He said while no one asked him to, he would try and quarantine himself.

"I'm pretty afraid, they argue about the people from China which is wearing the mask so I think I should keep it on.

"I'm going to stay at home."

If he did go out in public he will keep the mask on, he said.

The student said the flight was normal except for everyone wearing masks on the plane.

"The only have a temperature test at Guangzhou airport but it's like before boarding, it's not even before the security."

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