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Bloomfield says no failure as Covid-19 community cases from the border spread

More and more community cases linked to the border have been detected in recent days, first in Christchurch, then in Auckland, and now in Wellington. Justin Giovannetti looks at what’s happening.

Community cases of Covid-19 linked to quarantine facilities have been reported in New Zealand’s three largest cities over the past week, but director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says the “incursions” don’t signal failure.

The latest two cases have been linked to the defence force, with a worker at Auckland’s main quarantine facility becoming infected with the virus from recent arrivals and passing it on to a civilian defence worker based in Wellington.

Health officials have so far identified 80 close contacts of the two defence workers, with 57 having returned a negative result so far. Bloomfield says it’ll be clear in the next 24-48 hours whether the newly minted November quarantine cluster has been contained.

Two health workers in Christchurch also contracted the virus last week at a quarantine centre at the Sudima hotel that welcomed hundreds of Russian fishermen. Covid-19 was detected in 31 of the 235 mariners. None of the close contacts of those workers have yet to test positive.

As long as the country’s systems continue to detect the virus and quickly trace contacts, these recent cases aren’t failures, Bloomfield told reporters today in Wellington. There have now been seven community cases of Covid-19 detected in the country that came through New Zealand’s border system.

“We know that there will be, and expect that despite all our precautions, be the odd incursion. That’s why we have a series of systems in place, not only to detect it early but to follow up quickly. And you’ve seen with all our recent border incursions we’ve been able to get around them quickly and that’s our aim here,” said Bloomfield.

While defence staff in quarantine facilities have little access to patients, they do interact with them when they either go out for exercise or to smoke. The Wellington case was in Auckland for a meeting with the infected worker. They got onto a plane and headed back to the capital afterwards, testing positive in the following days. The government says that workers at border facilities will now handle most of their external meetings via Zoom.

A casual contact who was on the Wellington-based worker’s flight home but wasn’t seated near them currently feels unwell and has been tested, with results expected in the next day. That person attended a recent meeting in Kawhia with people from Ōtorohanga College. All are now keeping track of their symptoms.

There could be more changes to come at border facilities, according to Bloomfield. As the country logs more cases of the virus, it’s possible that researchers conclude there is “a higher risk of aerosolised virus” than previously thought, he said. That could mean that workers at quarantine facilities could soon wear heavier duty N95 masks during all their interactions with returnees.

Nearly all the previous cases that have been detected slipping through the border, including health workers and maintenance staff, have been stopped after infecting only one or two more people. That includes infected people that have gone to gym classes and shopping at grocery stores while unwittingly carrying the virus.

The recent uptick in cases points in part to the large number of Covid-positive returnees. In recent weeks New Zealand has had about 75 cases held in quarantine facilities who were detected in managed isolation. During the winter, when the global case level was much lower, the number of cases in quarantine hovered around a much more manageable 20.

North America and Europe are now in the midst of second waves of Covid-19 that are approaching or already dwarf the first waves seen in the northern hemisphere’s spring. The United States has been reporting over 125,000 new cases in recent days, shattering previous records. In Canada, contact tracing has been abandoned in parts of the country as health services have been overwhelmed. Large swaths of Europe are in nationwide lockdowns and governments are trying to figure out how to save Christmas as infection numbers climb.

The US has now surpassed 10 million cases of the virus as global cases have topped 50 million.

The risk for New Zealand continues to be in returnees. According to Bloomfield though, that risk is low despite nearly 75,000 arrivals in recent months interacting with thousands of workers at facilities.

The headquarters of New Zealand’s defence force is now closed and will remain so for days as it is cleaned. Thousands of defence personnel are working from home and dozens are monitoring themselves for symptoms of Covid-19.

There are steps that New Zealanders can take to stay safe, according to the government, including continuing to use the Covid-19 tracing app. Bloomfield compared it to a seatbelt in a car: you use it just in case something happens. “You never know when or where that information will be useful,” he said of the app. Also, wear a mask on transit and on airplanes. Few people, if anyone, on the Wellington case’s flight were wearing masks. Had they done so, their risk of catching the virus would be substantially lower.

The country recorded four more cases in managed-isolation today in returnees from Austria, Dubai and Qatar.