First COVID-19 death in NZ – Expert Reaction

A woman on the West Coast has become the first person in New Zealand to die from COVID-19.

The Ministry of Health announced today the woman was in her seventies, and had initially been admitted with what was thought to be influenza complicated by an underlying chronic health condition.

As a precautionary approach, the West Coast DHB has placed 21 staff in self-isolation for the balance of 14 days from their last involvement in the patient’s care. The combined total of confirmed and probable cases in New Zealand is 514.

The SMC asked experts to comment on this sad development.

Dr Christopher Gale, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago, comments:

“We will naturally be sad and share in the grief of the family of the first person who has died of COVID-19 in New Zealand. From other countries, we are aware that there is a death rate, and that the older population are the people we should protect most. A certain amount of gentleness and consideration has to be given to her family and friends, who will be grieving, and may be mourning from a distance.

“What we need to do at the moment is care for and comfort each other. This is not a time to amplify worry. There will be enough already. Any group that can set up things that will allow people to talk over distance will be useful.

“From now, it would be wise to set up your usual work routine as much as you can at home. The best you can do for society and for your family and relatives you worry about is to keep in small ‘bubbles’ and then work on whatever tasks you can. I am aware that there are people who are unable to work at their usual jobs. They could be thinking about how they can help others. Even if it is a nice word, a friendly wave, or a teddy bear in a window, you are helping others.

“If we all do the best we can with what we are able to do, we will keep the number of these events low, and we will get through this.

“If you are worried and concerned and fearful, this is normal, inevitable and part of being human. It is those who are not worried and have no fear that are more of a concern! Talk to each other. Make plans for today and tomorrow. Phone those you love who are not with you. The more you can do for each other, the less risk there is for you.

“If you are very worried, calling 1737 or lifeline would be a good start: your local doctors and mental health services are there in addition.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Dougal Sutherland, Clinical Psychologist, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The sad news of the first death from Covid-19 in New Zealand may be a sobering statistic for some who, until now, may have believed that we could avoid this consequence. The fact that the death occurred on the West Coast may further underline the crisis we face. If the death was in Auckland then some may have been able to dismiss it as being related to ‘others’ and not ‘us’. But this woman was ‘us’. Not a foreign tourist nor someone returning from overseas. Covid-19 is here at it is real.

“The death from Covid-19 may spark an increase in community anxiety about the crisis. Whilst this may manifest as increased worrying and sleepless nights, for some it may spark suspicion and distrust of others. When people are afraid, their ‘flight, fight, or freeze’ response is triggered. ‘Fleeing and freezing’ are done in private and internally. ‘Fight’ is directed externally toward others. This may explain the recent reports of targeting on social media of those who report having the virus.

“Whilst some level of fear and anxiety is warranted, as it can serve to keep us safe, high levels provoke us to respond irrationally. To counter this it’s important for us to acknowledge when we’re feeling afraid – notice the pit in your stomach, your tense shoulder, your racing thoughts, your urge to yell at someone. Then pause, breathe deeply several times, and focus on what you can do to keep yourself and your bubble safe. Direct your attention away from attacking others to protecting yourself as, ultimately, this will protect us all.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I also do some work for Umbrella Health who provide workplace training in mental health awareness and management, and building resilience.”

Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, University of Auckland, comments:

“I am very sad to hear of the first death from COVID-19 in Aotearoa New Zealand. My thoughts go out to the person’s family and friends, and to all of the people who cared for them during their illness. We are in a Level 4 lockdown to stop the spread of the virus and prevent as many such deaths as possible. I urge everyone to stay home, because doing so will save lives.  ”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Ian de Terte, Senior Lecturer/Clinical Psychologist, School of Psychology, Massey University, comments:

“When the Prime Minister, Ms Jacinda Ardern, and the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield led the press conference I knew that something serious was going to be said. They told us about our first fatality attributed to the coronavirus. This is a terrible and shocking outcome. There are some matters that I want to address.

“First, this is a terribly sad day for the family/whānau of the person who has lost their life to this devastating virus. At this time this family and community need our support. However, this whānau has asked for space over this dreadful outcome. Please respect their wishes. My thoughts are with this family and their community at this time.

“The next point that I want to make is that at this time of sorrow and sadness, it is vitally important that we physically distance ourselves from each other, while still providing support to each other. We can do this via social media, texting our neighbours, and telephone calls to friends and whānau. It is really important that we continue to break the chain of this virus, by physically distancing ourselves in our bubble, washing our hands, not touching our faces, and following the advice of our health professionals. As Dr Paul Young said this morning, by staying home ‘you will save more lives than I will in my entire career’. So, Kiwis please stay at home so other families do not have to experience the unexpected grief the whānau on the West Coast are experiencing.

“My final point is that some New Zealanders will be worried that older relatives or friends will be at risk. That is true and older relatives and friends have always been at risk and continue to be at risk with this virus. However, there are two important messages that I want to convey. Provide support for those in the community who are at risk and follow the advice of health professionals and stay at home. Most of our community is doing that.

“Finally, I want to again express my extreme sorrow to the family/whānau and the community of the person who succumbed to COVID-19. Hinapōuri.”

No conflict of interest.