As Australian health officials struggle to contain the Covid-19 outbreak in Sydney, a top epidemiologist here warns “maybe it is us”.
Professor Michael Baker said New Zealand was arguably entering “our most dangerous stage” since the Auckland outbreak in August as the pandemic soared in the Northern Hemisphere.
Baker, of the University of Otago’s public health school, is now calling on refugees returning from countries where the virus is “out of control” to take additional steps and isolate under surveillance in a hotel and be tested before even stepping on a plane.
The new strain of Covid-19, which is spreading rapidly across the UK, forcing a third of its population in isolation, is further evidence that the government needs to implement a “traffic light” system, he said.
“For New Zealand to go through the next few months until a vaccine is widely available, it must have other control measures in place in the source country to try to actually reduce the number of infected people arriving here, which is potentially our greatest vulnerability,” Baker said. , “especially now there appears to be the potential for a more contagious virus to become dominant.”
The Health Ministry yesterday reported six new cases since Friday in managed isolation facilities among people returning from South Africa, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands.
The ministry said it was also “closely monitoring” the outbreak in Sydney, where 30 new cases were reported overnight, forcing the cluster’s epicenter, the North Coast, into isolation and the wider Sydney area restricted.
New South Wales chief health officer Kerry Chant said finding the source of the north shore outbreak may be “a challenge beyond us” despite extensive investigations.
Officials said they expected the numbers to increase.
The New Zealand government is taking a wait-and-see approach to the outbreak and what impact it will have on the proposed transtasy travel bubble.
A spokesman said the arrangements would not start until the first quarter of next year but that it would depend on not having significant changes in circumstances in the two countries.
“We are monitoring the situation closely, but it is too early to make a decision based on the current community case in New South Wales.”
Baker said arrivals from New South Wales need not be treated differently because a proportionate proportion of their cases are still “small” and Australia is committed to stopping the outbreak to continue elimination goals.
“The main thing is this should be a big warning for us is that we can be today or tomorrow. We need further caution here,” said Baker.
“It’s very easy, but when we are on vacation, the virus is not on vacation. The virus behaves as usual.”
As the pandemic spikes across the globe – especially in the northern hemisphere – with nearly 21.2 million active cases, Baker said this could be New Zealand’s most dangerous stage since the August Auckland outbreak.
Everyone who comes back infected poses a threat to us, he said.
“There is always the potential for error.”
Baker said he wanted the Government to adopt a traffic light approach to arrivals so that those arriving from the highest-risk countries had stricter quarantine measures.
Ideally, he would like those deemed high risk to be isolated for about three days in the hotel under surveillance and return negative tests before they even board their flight to New Zealand.
The new Covid-19 strain that forced British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to cancel Christmas for the more than 16 million Britons living in London and south-east England is likely to spread across Britain and Europe, he said.
While it doesn’t appear to be any more lethal or that vaccines and treatments aren’t affected by it, scientists believe it is more contagious.
Baker said this “shouldn’t be a big surprise” because it’s normal for the virus to mutate but might make it harder to contain.
“And that’s the problem.”
Baker said New Zealanders should remain vigilant during the summer and the most important things to do are:
• If you have cold or flu symptoms, cancel your plans to stay at home and get advice about getting tested
• wash your hands regularly
• download and use the Covid Tracer app religiously and activate the Bluetooth function
• Get in the habit of carrying a mask and be prepared to use it.
There should be no relaxation in our preventive measures.