Live updates, February 15: Covid-19 vaccine has arrived in NZ; daughter may have been first case

Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for February 15. Get me on stewart@thespinoff.co.nz. Auckland is currently at alert level three and the rest of the country, level two. 

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7.00pm: The day in sum

The first batch of Covid-19 vaccines arrived in Auckland, with vaccination to begin on Saturday.

The trio of new Covid-19 cases were identified as the more transmissible UK variant, with no known link to MIQ

Experts said the likelihood of the virus having spread via laundry at one of the case’s workplaces was low.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said there were some indications the daughter was the first family member to be infected.

National leader Judith Collins called for compulsory saliva testing in MIQ.

Police reestablished Covid-19 checkpoints after Auckland’s shift into alert level three, but there was confusion over the border.

There were no new cases of Covid-19 in the community beyond the three reported on Sunday, and five in MIQ.

Jury trials were suspended in Auckland while the city is at alert level three.

Act urged the government to reinstate the opposition-led Epidemic Response Committee to scrutinise its decision-making.

Anti-lockdown protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s Auckland office.

6.30pm: Checkpoints moved after confusion over Auckland borders

Police have moved road checkpoints to south of Mangawhai after a day of “absolute confusion”, reports RNZ.

Residents of the town north of Auckland are under alert level two restrictions as it lies outside the city borders, but this morning, checkpoints were set up that enclosed Mangawhai within Auckland, contradicting the map on the government’s Covid-19 website.

The error meant schools and cafes were unsure whether they could open, and some residents of Mangawhai were told they couldn’t head 20km north to Waipu for work, reports the Herald.

The checkpoints have now been moved to reflect the correct boundaries, and are at the following locations:

Northern

SH1 / Mangawhai Road (Twin Coast Discovery Highway)
Mangawhai Road / north of Coal Hill Road
Black Swamp, west of Rako Road
Mangawhai Road and Cames Road
Mangawhai Road and Ryan Road
Note: Mangawhai Road is also known as Twin Coast Discovery Highway

Southern

Mercer off-ramp / Koheroa Road – (southbound traffic on SH1 and Mercy Ferry road).
SH1 / Oram Road – (northbound traffic on SH1)
Mangatāwhiri Road / Koheroa Road / SH2 off-ramp (all east and westbound traffic)
East Coast Road (Waharau Regional Park)
Pukekawa-Churchill / Highway 22 and Highway 22 / Logan Road
Tuakau Bridge-Port Waikato Road intersection with Klondyke Road

On The Spinoff

  • Siouxsie Wiles answers your questions on the latest Covid cases

Three new community cases of Covid-19 and an unknown source have plunged Auckland into lockdown and the rest of the country into alert level two. Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles tackles some of the critical questions we now face. Here’s a sample:

Q: Could we be looking at a situation as worrying as last August in Auckland?

A: Yes.

Read the full piece here

  • Will lockdown last more than three days?

Until a conclusive link to the border is established, there may well be other cases in the chain of transmission, write Michael Plank, Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles. Here’s a sample:

New Zealand’s latest community cases, the first to be infected with the more infectious B.1.1.7 variant of Covid-19, have a plausible link to the border through one person’s workplace at LSG Sky Chefs, a business that deals with laundry and catering from international flights.

But it is not a definitive link. Indeed, prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced this morning that genome sequencing was not able to link the new infections to any cases we have seen recently in returned travellers.

Worryingly, this leaves the possibility of a more widespread community outbreak.

Read the full piece here

5.35pm: Daughter may have been first to contract Covid, says Hipkins

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins says “some indications are suggesting” the daughter was the original family member to contract Covid-19, then passing it on to her mother. Three members of the Papatoetoe family tested positive for the virus at the weekend, leading Auckland to be placed under alert level three restrictions, and the rest of the country level two.

Speaking on RNZ’s Checkpoint, Hipkins said the source of the latest outbreak remained an “absolute puzzle”. The daughter was the first family member to show symptoms, and is being referred to as Case A. 

The mother’s job, dealing with laundry at airline catering company LSG Sky Chefs, has been pointed to as a potential source, but she has no direct contact with the border. Various experts have said surface transmission via the laundry is unlikely, leading to speculation the mother’s proximity to the border could be a “red herring”.

5.00pm: Collins calls for compulsory saliva testing in MIQ

National leader Judith Collins is calling for saliva testing to be made compulsory for returnees in managed isolation. Currently nasopharyngeal testing is undertaken at day three and day 12, as well as at day zero for returnees from the US and the UK. It is not compulsory, but those who refuse to be tested are required to stay in the facility for an additional 14 days.

Speaking at a press conference this afternoon, Collins said, “It’s simply unacceptable that people are still allowed back into New Zealand and simply have to stay longer in quarantine before they’re allowed back out into the community.

“The time is well past for us as a country to have constant threats of lockdowns and economic ruin for small businesses and their staff.”

At her post-cabinet press conference, Jacinda Ardern said saliva testing was already happening at high-risk sites such as the Jet Park quarantine facility.

4.05pm: First batch of vaccine has arrived in NZ; test results so far ‘encouraging’

The search for the source of the new community cases continues, Jacinda Ardern has confirmed. There will be “no stone left unturned”, she said.

While it was too soon to leap to conclusions, it was notable, said Ardern, that there was no evidence of close contacts of the new cases showing signs of symptoms, which could indicate they had become highly infectious themselves, in contrast to the experience last August.

A number of “avenues of investigation” continue, said Bloomfield. These include testing and serology on colleagues at the Sky Chef business and testing at Papatoetoe High School.

As of 2pm today, community testing centres around Auckland had tested close to 2,300 people, said Bloomfield. He urged people not to clog up testing centres unless they were symptomatic and/or had been at one of the locations of interest.

Today’s early test results were encouraging, said Bloomfield, but, “what we really want is the results of testing at the school, in the workplace, and in the wider south Auckland community, to really rule out that there are undetected chains of transmission”.

There are currently 42 people outside the household considered close contacts. Thirty-three of those relate to the school. Two negative tests have been reported; others are being processed. All of the nine non-school-related individuals have returned negative tests.

Saliva testing under way

On the mounting pressure to introduce regular saliva testing, Ardern said it had been introduced alongside the existing PCR nasal swabs at high-risk sites including the Jet Park quarantine facilities. And “we’re looking to roll it out at other high-risk facilities”.

But the low level of the virus in New Zealand meant that it was not tenable “to have a tolerance for false negatives”, she said.

Bloomfield added that New Zealand is collecting its own data on the reliability of the saliva testing based on simultaneous use of the two testing approaches in border facilities.

Among other “precautionary measures” being considered, said Ardern, was a total out-of-cycle testing round for all airside workers.

Vaccines arrived in Auckland this morning

The first batch of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine arriving at Auckland airport this morning (Photo: Supplied)

The first batch of the Pfizer vaccine, about 60,000 doses, arrived in Auckland at 9.30am this morning on a Singapore Airlines flight from Belgian via Doha, Ardern said.

It will be “more than enough doses to vaccinate our frontline workforce over the coming weeks”, she said. “It is good news that it is here earlier than previously predicted.”

This week the vaccine will be tested for quality assurance before being released to start the first phase of vaccination on Saturday. The vaccines will continue arriving in small batches over the coming weeks.

The first people to be vaccinated will be border workers, which includes MIQ cleaners, nurses who undertake health checks in MIQ facilities, security staff, customs and border officials, airline staff and hotel workers, said Ardern.

“We’re also looking closely at any border workforce that may be on a regular testing regime but not necessarily through regulation to make sure that we are taking a broad approach to those who are captured in that first tranche of vaccination,” she added. LSG Sky Chefs, where one of the new cases worked, is one such workplace, and she missed a fortnightly test through being on leave.

This group will be vaccinated over a two- to three-week period, and then their household contacts will follow. Next up will be healthcare and frontline workers.

Meanwhile, work to prepare the vaccination programme is well under way, said Bloomfield. “We’re working closely with the border workforce and the three Auckland DHBs setting up locations for vaccination,” he said. “Dry runs” had already been undertaken to ensure the process would run smoothly, while a number of vaccinators had been trained.

He noted that evidence remained inconclusive on whether the Pfizer vaccine stopped transmission on the virus, as well as preventing the development of symptoms.

The Covid-19 crisis “can seem like being on a rollercoaster that you haven’t bought a ticket for”, said Bloomfield, but health professionals were working hard to ensure that the response was as effective as possible.

3.45pm: What have New Zealanders been Googling today?

Judging by today’s trending Google searches, two things are on New Zealanders’ minds right now: the news and the weather.

Currently, searches for “Stuff”, “Auckland weather” (very rainy), and “Hamilton weather” (also very rainy) are trending high, as are “classrooms” and “slides” for students at home using Google Apps, and “teams” for people working from home using Microsoft Teams.

Meanwhile on Uber Eats, alert level three combined with some very wet weather has prompted many Aucklanders to order in, with several restaurants unavailable over lunchtime due to high demand.

– Jihee Junn

uber eats screengrab saying some restaurants are unavailable due to high demand

On The Spinoff: Papatoetoe community ‘devastated’ but stoic as queue for tests grows

Justin Latif reports:

“Gutted.” That’s the reaction of fellow students of the Papatoetoe High pupil who tested positive for Covid-19 over the weekend.

“I was gutted when I heard,” said Wesley Tuai, a year 11 student, who had just been tested at the school along with his father when he spoke to The Spinoff this morning. Unlike those waiting in a 1km long line of cars, Wesley and his father Hiki braved the heavy rain and walked to the school for their test.

“We were just at church when we heard the news. All we know is that she’s a year nine, we don’t know anything else about her,” Hiki said.

“You can’t blame people and this virus isn’t going away any time soon. Just look at Australia and how many lockdowns they’ve had, so New Zealand has really been quite fortunate given the amount of freedom we’ve had.”

Hiki and his wife both work for a large office supply business, but both will be self-isolating along with their son and two daughters until their test results come back. Despite the disruption, he’s pleased the government has chosen to go back into lockdown.

“What’s another lockdown, I’d rather be safe than sorry so to me it’s a good idea to go to level three.”

2.25pm: Where can you get a test?

More than 1,000 tests were carried out in Auckland yesterday at community testing centres, the Ministry of Health said. Today, community testing centres have extended their hours at Health New Lynn, The Whanau Ora Community Clinic in Wiri, Otara Community Testing Centre and Botany Testing Centre.

Information can be found here: https://www.arphs.health.nz/

A testing site is also available at Papatoetoe High School – the school Case B attended – although this is only for students, teachers and their families.

Sky Chef – where Case A worked – have testing onsite for staff and their families today.

There are two pop-up testing centres in Waikato, along with one permanent community testing centre. The two pop-up centres are at Claudelands Event Centre and Otorohanga Sport Club.

In Taranaki, where the confirmed Covid-19 cases visited over last weekend, a number of testing sites have been opened. These locations are: Taranaki Base Hospital; MediCross Urgent Care and GP Clinic; Hāwera Hospital; Waitara Health Centre; Ōpunake Health Centre/Coastal Care.

“It’s important the right people can get access to testing — so please don’t rush to a centre if you are well, or if you weren’t at one of the locations of interest,” a ministry spokesperson said.

“We are anticipating high demand at our Covid-19 testing sites and delays are possible, so our request is to please be patient.”

If you were not at a location of interest at the stated times and you have no symptoms, you do not need to be tested.

1.45pm: Five new MIQ cases

In addition to the news regarding the community Covid-19 cases (see 1.30pm update), there are five new cases in managed isolation today.

(Image : MOH)

A fifth case that arrived from the United States on January 28 has been deemed historical and remains in managed isolation.

Six previously reported cases have now recovered. The total number of active cases in New Zealand is 47. Our total number of confirmed cases is 1,980.

The total number of tests processed by laboratories to date is 1,589,949.

On Sunday, 3,132 tests were processed. The seven-day rolling average up to yesterday is 3,864 tests processed.

1.30pm: No new community Covid-19 cases

There are no new cases in the community outside of the three announced yesterday, the Ministry of Health has revealed in a press statement. Six of the 10 close contacts outside the household have now tested negative, with another four results still pending.

The new cases are being referred to by the ministry as the “Auckland February cases”.

As reported earlier, the results of genomic sequencing for the first two new cases have confirmed the Covid-19 variant B1.1.7 – first detected in the UK.

ESR is now conducting a scan of the international genome database to see if there is a match.

The ministry said: “An intensive source investigation around the latest cases continues, along with public health actions and alert level changes outlined yesterday, are designed to break any potential chains of transmission.

“Serology testing for the three positive cases and a close household contact is also now underway.”

The three cases remain in quarantine and one household contact, who has tested negative, is also in isolation.

Investigations will continue today into the three newest cases, including further interviews. As a result, the number of locations of interest, close and casual plus contacts may change, said the ministry.

“The priority is for close contacts and casual plus contacts to be tested so we can understand any risk in the community,” the ministry said.

“There are a number of locations of interest for people who may be ‘casual plus contacts’ or ‘casual contacts’ of Covid-19 cases in the community. While risk from these locations is most often low, contacts who attended one of the locations during the relevant timeframes are asked to follow the directions of health officials.”

Jacinda Ardern will be providing the next lot of information at a 4pm post-cabinet press conference.

1.10pm: Ministry to provide latest Covid info

The Ministry of Health was due to provide a Covid-19 update at 1pm, but is running late with sending it out. Of course, we’ll have all you need to know as soon as it drops.

At 4pm, you can expect to hear from Jacinda Ardern at a post-cabinet press conference. We’ll bring that to you live, here.

Think we’ve missed anything or want us to look into something? Drop me a message.

12.35pm: Anti-lockdown protesters gather outside PM’s Auckland office

Alex Braae filed this report from Morningside:

There was no room for social distancing outside the prime minister’s Auckland office as 40-50 protesters gathered to speak out against the lockdown.

One participant said their biggest concern was the economy and claimed the lockdown was destroying it and lives.

They labelled the vaccine a “human experiment”.

Asked how the government should respond to the pandemic, one person said they should listen to the people and not scientists from universities. They also said they do not trust any polls that show lockdowns work.

Police have kept a hands off approach this morning, with not one officer in sight now. Earlier, a lone police officer found themselves in an argument with notable anti-lockdown advocate Damien de Ment.

Meanwhile, cars have tooted as they passed the crowd, although it’s not known whether it’s in support or simply because people are wandering onto the road.

A man who works nearby said in a weary tone that he sees protesters often outside Ardern’s office.

Ardern, of course, is in Wellington.

Lockdown protestors

(Photo : Alex Braae)

11.30am: Queues for Covid testing in New Plymouth

Queues are building in Taranaki after it was revealed the new Covid-19 cases visited the region over the Waitangi long weekend.

A post on Facebook by the Taranaki DHB revealed traffic is being redirected to make way for the large number of people waiting for coronavirus tests.

11.05am: Call for return of Epidemic Response Committee

The Act Party is urging the government to reinstate the opposition-led Epidemic Response Committee to scrutinise its decision-making.

The committee, which operated under Simon Bridges’ leadership during the first Covid-19 lockdown, was originally used as a substitute for parliament while it could not sit.

David Seymour said he wrote to the Speaker as chair of the Business Committee asking that the Epidemic Response Committee be brought back. That request, Seymour said, was rejected.

“The government has shown it is not open to being thoroughly scrutinised on how it is handling the response to Covid-19, despite regular claims to the contrary,” Seymour said.

“The Epidemic Response Committee proved to be of huge value to New Zealanders as MPs and notable New Zealand experts in fields such as epidemiology probed the basis for government decision making.

“It resulted in improvements to government policy as decisions were drilled into and experiences from numerous individuals and sectors of the economy were shared and canvased.”

9.40am: Covid-19 transmission from laundry ‘unlikely’ – expert

Professor Nick Wilson from the University of Otago’s public health department this morning told RNZ that the spread of the virus through the handling of laundry was “unlikely”.

“From a scientific perspective, we’ve never seen transmission from a surface or an object anywhere in the world.

“That is a very unlikely source of infection. It’s far more likely there is a human to human chain of transmission – infected air crew, transit passengers or even someone in an MIQ facility that has been missed.”

In August, health officials believed an elevator could be key to a maintenance worker at the Rydges hotel facility testing positive for Covid-19. Again in October, the Ministry of Health identified a rubbish bin as the probable source of a Covid-19 case.

Wilson called it a “mistake” for officials to focus on surfaces. “In those situations, there was shared air space, and that is far, far more likely than a lift button or a rubbish bin.”

He added: “There’s no international evidence, despite the massive spread around the world, for surfaces being involved. This is a highly contagious respiratory virus which is spread through inhalation.”

Wilson, alongside public health expert Michael Baker, recently co-authored a piece outlining 12 ways the government could tighten border controls. “The government really has no excuse now not to seriously look at improving border control.”

He also called for daily saliva testing of those at the border. “The data I’ve seen suggests it may be just as reliable [as nasal swabbing]. But even if it is less reliable, because it’s done every day… it probably is far superior to weekly testing.”

Reminder: Scan in!

Have you forgotten? I hope not.

9.20am: Court trials suspended in Auckland

Jury trials have been suspended in Auckland while the super city is in alert level three, unless the trial has reached the deliberation stage.

No new criminal jury trials will start before Thursday, confirmed chief justice Helen Winkelmann.

Meanwhile, judge alone trials scheduled for this week will be reviewed and any civil proceedings will be reviewed to see if they can proceed using remote participation.

8.40am: ‘Couldn’t have got off lighter’ – Papatoetoe High principal

One of the three new Covid-19 cases is a student who attended Papatoetoe High School in South Auckland. Its principal Vaughn Couillaut has this morning responded to the news and revealed that “fewer than 50” people at the school have been identified as close contacts.

“We’ve ring-fenced it to five teaching staff and one learning class,” he told RNZ. “We couldn’t have got off lighter if we tried, we’re not talking a huge quantum of people.”

Everyone else at the school, however, is considered a casual contact, said Couillaut.

There were no assemblies or other group activities during the time period when the student was infectious, Couillaut said, meaning there are not as many close contacts as could have been possible.

Couillaut intended to reach out to the family today, saying yesterday would have been a fairly intense day for them.

“There is a heightened sense of anxiety but a fairly stoic and responsible community response,” Couillaut said of the school and its families.

8.15am: Police checkpoints reestablished after move to level three

The police have announced the return of their Covid-19 checkpoints after Auckland’s shift back into alert level three.

The boundaries will be set mostly in the same locations as the last time Auckland was in lockdown last August.

Eight checkpoints on the outskirts of Auckland are stopping vehicles and questioning drivers, ensuring there is no non-essential movement through the region, police announced in a statement.

If you are required to travel, you must now present proof when stopped by police.

Police commissioner Andrew Coster said this is not new territory for police or the public. “We will continue work with a graduated response, starting with education. We are once again asking the public be safe and abide by the alert level restrictions for their region.”

Speaking on RNZ, Coster said there will be “a bit of messiness today” as people work out whether they are exempt from travel restrictions and apply for exemptions.

A reporter stationed at one of the Auckland checkpoints said the traffic is heavy and showed no signs of letting up soon.

7.50am: Recent Auckland sewage testing found no Covid-19

The prime minister has revealed that South Auckland sewage testing on February 10 found no evidence of Covid-19. It suggests the reappearance of the coronavirus over the weekend could be a recent development and not an undetected community outbreak.

But how does sewage testing work? Mirjam Guesgen wrote about it for The Spinoff almost a year ago.

Here’s an extract:

The fight against Covid-19 is headed for the sewers, with New Zealand scientists hoping to analyse wastewater samples for signs of the coronavirus.

Tests would allow health authorities to see whether New Zealand’s elimination strategy has worked, said Michael Baker, a professor of public health at Otago University.

“These methods are orientated not so much when you’re trying to manage cases. This is when you think you might have got rid of something and you want to confirm that,” he said.

“You can only achieve elimination if you’ve got ways of saying something isn’t present. It’s easy to say that something is present, it’s actually quite hard to say that something isn’t there.”

Read the full article here

7.00am: New Covid-19 cases are UK strain, not linked to MIQ

The trio of new Covid-19 cases have been identified as the more transmissible UK variant of the coronavirus, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.

UK variety of Covid-19 has proven to spread at a far higher rate and could possibly be more deadly than the original.

Speaking on Newstalk ZB, Ardern said the overnight developments reassure her about the move into alert level three. “I think we were absolutely right to make the decision we made,” Ardern said. The new cases have also not been linked to a case from within our managed isolation facilities. “That tells us, therefore, that it is unlikely to be some form of issue with out managed isolation,” Ardern said on RNZ.

The PM said one of the most likely routes for transmission, so far, is from an international airline crew member. One of the three new cases works at LSG Sky Chef. “One of our cases in the household we identified… they do the laundry of a couple of international airline crews.”

A less likely scenario, Ardern said, is that the index case is someone from MIQ who couldn’t be sequenced.

“There could be a scenario where we are not able to answer what happened here,” Ardern said. If the lockdown is to lift on Wednesday night, health officials will need confidence that there is not widespread transmission. The source of these cases, Ardern said, would not necessarily need to be identified for this to happen.

Ardern wouldn’t be drawn on the possibility of the lockdown extending beyond 72 hours: “We still have options to pursue to identify possible sources… this afternoon we’ll have more information through.”

Sewage testing last week in south Auckland didn’t reveal any cause for concern, Ardern said, indicating that the reappearance of Covid-19 is a recent development.

“It means we really focus on trying to internationally match the case that we have here,” Ardern said. It’s possible the cases could be linked to managed isolation in Australia or to international airlines as these have their own testing regimes.

“What we’ll be looking for today is to get that surveillance testing up, testing those in the areas of interest,” Ardern said.

Top stories from The Bulletin

A new set of three Covid-19 cases in the community has been found, and the alert levels have shifted as a result. The cases are all part of a family group – a mother, father and teenage daughter. The mother works at LSG SkyChefs, an airport laundry and catering facility, and is part of a regular testing cycle, though her case was not picked up through that process. She sought a further test when she became ill, which Dr Ashley Bloomfield said was the right thing to do.

There are a significant number of locations of interest. Our live updates people have done an excellent job wrapping them, along with a range of other developments from last night. According to the health ministry, Pak’n’Save Manukau and Papatoetoe High School are on the list. Everyone who attended Papatoetoe High last week is being told to get tested, reports the NZ Herald. There are also quite a few locations around New Plymouth from Waitangi weekend, because two of the individuals were there. If you need a test around the Auckland region, locations can be found here.

What about the Auckland lockdown? This will apply to Auckland for three days, after the experience of several Australian states showed it can be an effective period of time to halt any spread, and gather information about whether further spread has taken place. Genome testing will be crucial for that, because it will help establish a chain of transmission. If that chain is short, then the lockdown might well be too – and if a chain can’t be established, we could see this lasting longer. As PM Ardern said, “we don’t yet have a complete picture,” and so at this stage it’s hard to predict where we’ll be at the end of the week. The Australian experience also shows a lockdown up front tends to be over quicker than delayed action, which can result in it all dragging on for a long time.

Level three means schools are closed, working from home is now the rule, and businesses have to move to contactless services. A full explainer can be found here. There will once again be a border up around the Auckland region, though people currently visiting will be able to get out (and vice versa for Auckanders currently out of town.) Supermarkets will remain open, along with other essential service shops. As with other lockdowns, normal shopping is advised. If I might also add, there’s no need to shame people for rushing out to the supermarket last night – it’s a stressful time after all – but remember to socially distance and wear a mask while you’re there.

What should we all be doing in the meantime? If you were in the locations of interest at the specified times, self-isolate and monitor yourself for symptoms. And if not, the advice is the same now as it is every other time – scan in everywhere and keep track of your movements, wear a mask if you’re out on public transport, and wash your hands regularly. We’ve done it before, we’ll do it again.




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