After 101 days with no community transmission of COVID-19, on Tuesday night [11 August] the New Zealand Government reported four positive cases with no known link to the border or managed isolation facilities. Today 13 more cases were confirmed, all linked to the four confirmed cases, as well as one case in managed isolation.
The NZ Government put their ‘resurgence plan’ into action swiftly, essentially locking down New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland, at Alert Level 3 for three days, and putting the rest of the country at Alert Level 2, where stringent hygiene, contact tracing and physical distancing must be practised.
Looking for the origins of the outbreak
Work is being done to discover the source and strain of the virus in the new positive cases, using genome sequencing.
There is some speculation the virus may have been on the surface of an imported frozen product at the workplace of one of the confirmed cases, and genome sequencing may test the plausibility of this idea.
So far, freezing and refrigeration have not been shown to kill the virus.
Second wave expected
A new outbreak was anticipated by authorities and health experts but is still disappointing. Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield warned New Zealanders, just last week, that it was not a matter of ‘if’ there would be a second wave, but ‘when’.
Microbiologist Susie Wiles agrees the cases of community transmission are disappointing but unsurprising.
Swift action the best defence
“Now the race is on to find the source of the cases and break any chains of transmission”, Dr Wiles says.
“Moving Auckland straight to Alert Level 3 and the rest of the country to Alert Level 2 gives us the best chance of stamping out the virus quickly. Any delays just mean more opportunities for the virus to spread further”.
Travel out of Auckland puts other communities at risk
University of Otago Department of General Practice and Rural Health associate professor Gary Nixon says the different alert levels between different parts of the country is not something that’s had to be done before, but it is a sensible approach.
“Minimising movement between regions is now more important,” Dr Nixon says.
However, late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning saw floods of cars heading out of Auckland city, until police stops were put in place.
“People shifting out of the cities to sit out the last lockdown at the bach was a problem last time”, Dr Nixon says.
“Now it risks not only putting undue pressure on stretched rural health services, it also risks introducing the virus into communities at lower alert levels, where it can spread more easily”.
Anxiety and disappointment expected
Mental health experts say going back into lockdown may bring with it a sense of disappointment, anxiety and even grief.
According to child psychiatrist and paediatrician Hiran Thabrew, healthy ways to manage these feelings include:
• Revising your expectations (again)
• Focussing on what you can control, and trying to accept what you can’t
• Creating a new daily/weekly routine
• Not trying to do too much
• Talking about your feelings with others
• Actively using relaxation strategies, including regular exercise, mindfulness via apps like CALM/Headspace, online yoga, etc
• Practising gratitude by thinking of three things for which you are still grateful each day
• Limiting use of social media to read stories about COVID or keep up with the latest case numbers
• Checking in and staying connected with others, especially those who may be more afraid or more vulnerable to either the virus or the effects of isolation
• Remembering that this too will pass.
The strategy going forward
As well as swift lockdown and alert level measures, the NZ Government is relying on testing any symptomatic people for COVID-19, contact tracing and, in Auckland, face masks, to bring the outbreak back under control.
By Friday night, New Zealanders will know if there will be alert level changes or if the lockdown will be extended.
Dr Wiles is optimistic about getting back to enjoying the freedoms hard won by previous lockdown efforts.
“My message to all New Zealanders is not to panic. We’ve stamped out the virus before and we will do it again.”