New Zealand reports first Covid-19 case in community since February

New Zealand has a new case of Covid-19 transmission in the community, Ministry of Health officials have confirmed. The news will be greeted with dismay in the country, which has not had a case of transmission in the community since February, and has so far avoided incursions into the community from the more-transmissible Delta variant.

The case was detected in Auckland, and health officials have not yet established a link between the case and the border or managed isolation facilities.

The government advised New Zealanders to follow basic public health measures: mask wearing, hand washing, and continuing to scan QR codes to assist with content tracing. People should stay home if sick, and call a doctor or healthline about getting tested.

“In particular anyone in Auckland catching public transport this afternoon or who cannot socially distance in public spaces should wear a mask as a precaution,” the Ministry of Health said. Public health units were conducting interviews with the infected person for contact tracing.

It is not yet known whether the new case is the Delta variant, but it is highly likely – data released by the Ministry of Health yesterday showed 100% of Covid-19 cases detected at New Zealand’s border in recent weeks had been Delta.

Epidemiologist and public health expert Prof Michael Baker said the latest case was “almost certainly” the Delta variant.

He said while there was little information about the case, people should err on the side of caution. That the case was directly connected to the border without intermediary cases was, he said, “the most optimistic scenario, and it’s probably less likely”.

“The other scenario – which I think is more likely – is a much tougher one,” he said. “Where this case appeared from an unknown source, which means that there must be other cases out in the community which haven’t been identified … That means there have been infectious people in the community, potentially for several days, and you don’t know how widespread the outbreak is.”

He likened that possibility to an iceberg: “you can see the tip, but you don’t yet know how big the base is. “In those circumstances, you don’t have any alternative but to go into a very rapid, intense lockdown.”

Last week, the government warned New Zealanders that they could face a “short, sharp” lockdown if the Delta variant made its way into the country. Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said at the time: “Our response is likely to be swift and severe in the event we would see a case emerge in the community.”

Baker urged New Zealanders to wear masks whenever they were in indoor environments like supermarkets, cafes or pharmacies, until more was known about the case and its origins. He pointed to the recent case of transmission in a quarantine hotel, where the Delta variant was transmitted from an infected person in one room to three people across the hall, with the doors only open for three to five seconds.

“It’s this idea of fleeting contact, or how the virus aerosol can waft through the air across the corridor from one room to another. People have to have that in mind now, in any indoor environment that you’re in – if there’s other people in it, they could be firing out these aerosols by simply breathing, talking, laughing … they don’t even have any symptoms.”

“Everyone in Auckland now should be wearing masks in all indoor environments where they’re with other people immediately.”

Government ministers will meet this afternoon and be briefed by officials, and cabinet will meet shortly after. The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is on her way to Wellington from Auckland. A formal update is expected at around 6pm.

New Zealand had its last Covid scare after a Delta-infected Australian travelled to the New Zealand capital, Wellington and visited a range of popular tourist locations. The tourist had been vaccinated, and was in the early stages of infection – they did not infect any New Zealanders on that trip.

Most of New Zealand’s population is still not vaccinated. As of this week, about 22% of over-16s had had both shots of the vaccine.

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