18 Mar 2020

Coronavirus: School closures needed until tests confirm no widespread transmission - public health expert

10:29 am on 18 March 2020

New Zealand should ramp up its response to Covid-19 and close schools until testing makes it clear there's no widespread community transmission, infectious diseases expert Professor Michael Baker says.

No caption

Professor Michael Baker Photo: RNZ/Philippa Tolley

The government has called a halt to gatherings of more than 500 people, travellers from most countries must self-isolate on arrival in New Zealand and the finance minister yesterday unveiled a $12.1 billion rescue package.

"Everyone in public health and the whole health sector and probably most people in New Zealand are really applauding the government's direction towards containment, Prof Baker of Otago University said.

"Closing down borders and the health package and the economic package is just exactly what we need.

"This puts New Zealand right on this path towards containment.

"The big concern at the moment is we haven't done enough testing in New Zealand to know whether we've got transmission in the community.

"I think we'd all breathe a huge sigh of relief once we've done 20,000 tests around the country of people with symptoms and we can be much more certain about whether we have transmission happening in this country."

The government is spending an additional $5 million on increasing the testing capacity of Covid-19 as part of its $500m spend to tackle the impact of the virus on the health system. Later this week, the capacity for testing will jump from 1000 to 1500 tests per day.

On Wednesday, 500 Covid-19 tests taken on Tuesday were due back, almost matching the number of all test carried out so far.

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

"In this intermediate period I think we have to be maximising social distancing.

"That gives us the best chance to maintain this containment direction."

That would include "to the greatest extent possible" closing schools, cutting public transport and people staying home.

"This is only a short term thing until we know the extent of transmission. We would feel much more relaxed after we've done a lot of testing. That's the only real weak point at the moment in our strategy."

If after testing it was found containment was successful some of the measures could be pulled back.

"It's not like you're closing schools entirely - for example you may maintain schools for children of essential workers so you're not pulling staff out of hospitals."

Australia had also been heading down the containment path but seems to have lost that, and now has quite widespread community transmission, he said. "That has made us very concerned in New Zealand.

"We do need the support of social distancing measures now. We can all contribute by increasing distance from others, avoiding large social gatherings over the weekend, that kind of thing."

Baker said people who are going to hospital with pneumonia are being tested and are found not to have the virus.

"The good news at the moment is we're not seeing people turning up in hospital with pneumonia with this infection."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs