25 Jan 2021

Covid-19: Updates from New Zealand on 25 January

9:24 pm on 25 January 2021

The Ministry of Health is continuing to add locations of interest to a list of places where the Northland community case of Covid-19 visited.

Farmers in Whangārei.

Photo: Google Maps

Extra testing facilities have been set up today, in response to the Northland woman found to have Covid-19 after the 56-year-old was released from Auckland's Pullman isolation hotel. And anyone who was at the same places as her at the same times has been asked to isolate until they return a negative test.

The new additions to the list of locations are Carpet Court and Farmers in Whangārei. The woman visited the two stores on 15 January.

Stores and venues visited by the woman who had tested positive were closed for deep cleaning.

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Photo: RNZ / Katie Todd

Meanwhile, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said there was no reason at this stage to restrict travel or put Northland into lockdown.

The woman is believed to have caught the virus from another person whose room was close to hers in the hotel.

The Minister in charge of the Covid-19 Response, Chris Hipkins, said genome testing showed the strain was the South African variant. The testing and investigations had matched it to the nearby guest, and it wasn't thought there was any 'middle man'.

More investigations were being done into how the virus spread to the Northland woman, including checking the ventilation system, and to trace anyone she could have passed it on to.

Professor Shaun Hendy told RNZ the South African variant has similar genetic changes to the UK variant that makes it easier for it to infect cells.

But now that the source has been tracked down to the isolation facility, he said there was not likely to be a large number of other cases out there. And because we only need to look 'downstream' for other potential new cases, and not 'upstream' to find out where it came from, the containment is an easier prospect than the Auckland community cases in August last year.

Hipkins told Morning Report two of the woman's close contacts - her husband and hairdresser - had returned negative results.

Results were not yet available for another 13 close contacts who have all been tested, and are isolating.

Another six people have tested positive for the virus today, all in managed isolation. The number of active cases in New Zealand is 64.

Community testing and vigilance ramping up

In light of the Northland's woman's case, Covid-19 testing in the community has been ramped up, health authorities say.

The College of General Practitioners sent a message to its 5500 members this morning telling them to increase swabbing. It says the screening tests are crucial to help keep the disease from taking hold in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, anyone with cold or flu symptoms should act promptly as soon as they appear and get tested, said Hauora Tairāwhiti District Health Board chief executive Jim Green.

"Please continue to be vigilant," he said.

In Northland, queues grew as people acted on the call to get tested, but testing centres struggled to keep up.

Some had to wait more than seven hours, and at Marsden Point near Ruakākā, the queues reached more than a kilometre long.

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Drivers queuing to be tested for Covid-19 at Ruakākā, today. Photo: RNZ / Katie Todd

Mike Paora was one of those in the line, and said people had become desperate for food and water after not planning on waiting so long, and many drivers had turned around and left without reaching the testing point.

He joined the queue before 9am, after the first testing centre he visited told him to go to another. But by around midday he wasn't expecting to reach the front until about 3pm.

Other Northlanders told RNZ they were anxious about the possibility of further community spread, and some were angry the case hadn't been contained by the quarantine system.

Case prompts louder calls for use of tracing app

The Northland woman who tested positive was praised by both Bloomfield and Hipkins for her meticulous use of the tracing app to keep track of her movements, and her prompt call to report symptoms when they appeared. This allowed them to trace her movements quickly, and to send out notifications to more than 160 people who had been at the same location as her.

"She did everything right," Bloomfield said. "I can't thank the person enough."

He said it was a reminder to everyone that they must use the app and turn on its Bluetooth capability, to speed up tracing and keep themselves and others in the community safe.

Another 200,000 people turned on the app's Bluetooth capability overnight, he said.

Northland case raises questions about isolation processes

Another 46 people who were due to leave the Pullman Hotel have been asked to stay on in the facility while the spread of the virus is investigated. Those released from the hotel since the woman left were also asked to isolate until they've been tested, and staff testing was expected to be complete today.

Pullman Hotel in Auckland. Managed isolation facility.

Pullman Hotel in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

A microbiologist who completed a stint in managed isolation in November told Checkpoint he saw a number of weak spots in the managed isolation system at the time.

However, another returnee who is in the Pullman Hotel told Checkpoint he believed the system was robust and well policed.

University of Otago Medical School epidemiologist Sir David Skegg said people shouldn't be surprised at the new community case, and it was unlikely to be the last.

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Sir David Skegg. Photo: Screenshot/New Zealand Parliament

He said New Zealand had some of the best MIQ facilities in the world, but could learn from Australia. There, he said, all workers at managed isolation and quarantine facilities have to do a daily saliva test for Covid-19.

In New Zealand the saliva tests have been introduced as a trial at one of the MIQ facilities, but it is optional for workers to use them, which Sir David said was madness.

Australia suspends quarantine free travel from NZ

The Australian Government has suspended quarantine free travel for New Zealanders for at least 72 hours in the wake of the Northland community case, effective immediately.

The Australian Ministry of Health said all passengers currently en route would need to enter mandatory hotel quarantine for up to 14 days on arrival, or follow the requirements of the relevant state.

It is advising New Zealanders with travel plans over the next 72 hours to reconsider their need for travel.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was told about Australia's decision late this afetrnoon by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

"I advised him that we have confidence in our systems and processes, but it is Australia's decision as to how they manage their borders," she said.

Air NZ said it will now require all passengers travelling on international flights to wear masks. While masks were previously recommended by the airline before now, they weren't compulsory on international flights unless the plane was returning from a handful of countries where it was required to wear them on the flight. Masks are required on domestic flights.

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