6 Mar 2020

Coronavirus: Community transmission of Covid-19 'inevitable', professor says

10:33 am on 6 March 2020

A public health professor says the World Health Organisation's failure to declare Covid-19 a pandemic is giving New Zealanders a false sense of security.

Patient samples at a safety workbench for coronavirus testing.

Photo: AFP

It was confirmed this morning that there is a fourth case of coronavirus in New Zealand.

The fourth case is a New Zealand citizen in his 30s, the partner of the second case announced earlier this week, the Ministry of Health said.

Yesterday it was confirmed that an Auckland man was the third case of Covid-19 in this country.

He's now in isolation, along with six members of his family.

The Director-General of Health says the man contracted the virus from a family member who had been to Iran and returned more than a week ago.

Michael Baker, public health professor at the University of Otago, said part of the reason for the WHO not calling it a pandemic is that China managed to halt the spread of the virus.

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Michael Baker, public health professor at the University of Otago. Photo: RNZ/Philippa Tolley

"This is the first time, I think, that any country has been able to stop a pandemic of respiratory infection in full flight.

"They obviously used absolutely draconian measures and it wouldn't be acceptable in other places, and there was a lot of abuse of human rights in that process. But they've actually stopped it, or largely contained it. That's really motivated the WHO to take this stance."

Professor Baker said he disagrees with the stance and it'd be better to say it's a pandemic situation.

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

"It's really important to note that it is possible to contain this thing in some places, so I think that has really changed the rhetoric around this and that's why they're using words like 'aggresive prevention'.

"For a country like New Zealand, I don't think that rhetoric is really helpful. We're ruling out a very effective programme of control measures."

He said we're very close to community transmission of the virus and Australia is already saying the containment stage is likely to end soon because there will be widespread community transmission.

"You still apply those measures, you still want to isolate cases and quarantine contact. You don't stop doing that, but you do accept that you've passed that critical tipping point."

Professor Baker said the tipping point could be a few days or a few weeks, but it will be soon.

"Looking at other countries that also have high performing health systems, like Australia and the UK and parts of Europe, I think it is inevitable."

He said we need to make critical changes to our culture in order to curb the virus, one being that people tend to turn up to work when they're sick.

"Stay at home if you're sick, particularly if you have a cough. Don't go to work and school and social events and spread it around."

We also need to be more diligent with hygiene. Professor Baker said studies have shown New Zealanders have quite disgusting habits, including coughing into our hands and not using hand sanitiser when entering hospitals and clinics.

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