3 Nov 2020

Covid-19 community case: Border system 'needs urgent review'

10:05 am on 3 November 2020

A new community case of Covid-19 is another sign the border system needs an urgent review, public health expert Nick Wilson says.

The Sudima Hotel in Christchurch which is being used as an isolation facility.

The Sudima Hotel managed isolation facility at Christchurch Airport (file photo) Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

A staff member working at the Sudima Hotel managed isolation facility at Christchurch Airport returned a positive result on Monday.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the case was caught early and shows the routine testing regime is working.

Professor Wilson from the University of Otago told Morning Report the government is brushing over the issue by saying we can control occasional border incursions - but they should be seen as system failures.

The Christchurch worker returned a negative test on Thursday 29 October as part of routine testing for staff at the facility, but developed symptoms on Saturday and took another test on Sunday which returned the positive result.

International fishing crew members have been staying at the Sudima facility. Of the 237 mariners, 31 are infected with Covid-19.

The Ministry of Health said the person is in isolation at home and reported taking care to isolate themselves as soon as they developed symptoms.

The person had visited the Countdown supermarket on Colombo Street on Sunday.

Countdown supermarket, Colombo Street, Sydenham, Christchurch.

The Countdown supermarket on Colombo St, Christchurch, is reopening after a deep clean. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Countdown general manager of corporate affairs Kiri Hannifin said staff were told about the case on Monday night.

She said the store had since been deep cleaned by third-party, professional cleaners.

"As we have done when this has happened, right throughout this year actually, we closed our store down, we did a deep clean. We do all the touch points in the store, we do everything so thoroughly because we don't know where to clean so we just do the whole store."

The supermarket would provide health officials with security footage as part of contact-tracing, she said, though staff were not told of the person's identity.

'System failures'

Prof Wilson said the cycle of infection from across the border had to be stopped.

"We've had now six border failures since the start of August - and that includes the large Auckland August outbreak - so things are definitely not working properly."

The government needs to "up its game", he said.

Professor Nick Wilson

Prof Nick Wilson Photo: RNZ Insight / John Gerritsen

Wilson said people in isolation at Sudima were sharing rooms which was a breach of normal quarantine practice. Even when this was not occurring, hotels are not designed for quarantine, with "shared airspace" and unsuitable ventilation systems.

"This is an area that needs an urgent review. It's not adequate that workers are being placed at risk.

"We've had a nurse infected, a maintenance worker, a port worker. These are system failures because we should be stopping all cases at the border."

Wilson repeated his suggestion for purpose-built quarantine facilities, at sites like Ohakea airbase, where staff could live on the base for two-to-three week periods at a time so infections are contained.

New Zealand also needs to reduce the number of infected people coming into the country from areas where the pandemic is out of control with measures like pre-flight testing, and move facilities out of Auckland, he said.

"Basically we're having border control failures every two weeks and we could end up with another Auckland August outbreak if we don't improve."

MIQ workers should be paid extremely well and have state-of-the art protection because its a hazardous job. "We have to move on from an ongoing cycle of infection."

System doing what it was designed to do - Ardern

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the detection of the new community case is a sign the routine testing regime is working.

Ardern told Morning Report the system is built for these types of occurrences.

"MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine] workers are in contact with people with Covid. They are very aware of their circumstances, keep good records of who they're in contact with and behave really responsibly when they feel even a touch unwell, as in this case."

She said the person had only one close household contact, and that work close contacts at the MIQ facility will be re-tested. The Ministry of Health would be putting out push notifications this morning regarding the supermarket visit.

The case was caught early and showed the system was doing what it was designed to do.

"But it is a constant reminder to us that whilst the world is in the midst of significant outbreaks we're not immune to it while we manage New Zealanders returning home. Please keep using the tracer app, please keep up your vigilance, get a test if you're sick."

Low paid workers in isolation facilities must be looked after - union

Unite union president Gerard Hehir said there may have to be an increase in quarantine times for large groups of international workers, and more testing for hotel workers.

He said the arrival of large groups of workers was a different challenge for the isolation facilities than individuals or families.

"Where you've got a large group of people like these fisherman who came in together, possibly in isolation together, or for a longer period of time, that's a different scenario again. It'll need to be watched very carefully.

"We've got to look after those workers ... not just in terms of their health.

"These are low-paid workers, so the risks they're taking, we need to make sure that they are not under pressure to, for instance, not isolate because they might lose money."

He said the workers need to know that the regular testing, which protects everyone, isn't going to lead to them losing work or losing their jobs.

The first of the international mariners were due to complete their managed isolation on Tuesday morning but were having to stay on for at least another 24 hours as an additional precautionary measure, the ministry has said.

Those precautionary measures include additional tests - up to four tests for some individuals - and an already lengthened stay in managed isolation.

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