Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

Zero new cases of COVID-19 – Expert Reaction

For the first day in months, there have been no newly detected cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand.

While Ministry of Health Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield called the figure “encouraging,” he said the real test would come later this week, due to the incubation period of the virus.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the milestone figure. 

Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“It is a great milestone to reach a day with no new cases and everyone in the country should be proud of their efforts to get us to this point. What we want to see now are lots more days like this. Then we’ll have more confidence in moving down to alert level two. In the meantime, it’s important that people don’t relax their guard now and celebrate by bending or breaking the rules of alert level three.

“And if we see another case again tomorrow? Don’t lose heart. If we keep up our efforts we will get through this.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“‘No new cases’, is a wonderful symbolic milestone to reach in battling the Covid-19 pandemic. As an epidemiologist, I am more concerned about the trend and pattern of cases than the count for a single day. But it is impossible not to be moved by this achievement for Aotearoa/New Zealand. This milestone is also in the context of a steady decline in cases since a peak on 5 April, which is also a positive sign that containment measures are working in NZ.

“At the same time, complacency is also the enemy when trying to eliminate this virus. The threat of Covid-19 has been consistently under-estimated across the globe, with tragic consequences. Outbreaks are possible at any time and can develop rapidly before they are detected, taking many weeks to contain.

“This is also the time when New Zealand needs to consider all of the additional measures that could safeguard the country as we plan a move into Alert Level 2. These measures include the introduction and high uptake of a contact tracing app or card, ‘mass-masking’ in enclosed public places, and a strong emphasis on measures to protect vulnerable populations in hospitals and rest homes.”

No conflict of interest.

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

“The report that there are no new cases in New Zealand today is heartening, and there will inevitably be a sense that risk of COVID-19 is lower. Sadly, we don’t know this. We have difficulty estimating the effectiveness of level 3 social distancing, and as time goes on there is a certain level of fatigue with the restrictions, made worse for some by increasing conflict and stress at home, for others by worries about their business and job, and in others by isolation, anxiety and despair.

“It would be quite unwise to say that this virus is eliminated, or even contained, on the information we have.

“What we need to consider, as we move out of the initial crisis, is how we can minimise disability due to the lockdown. There have been medical procedures stopped, routine care delayed, and in some cases cancer treatments delayed, all of which can lead to long term problems. People have not been able to access mental health services or their GPs.

“Fortunately, we have been spared the death rate of parts of the Northern Hemisphere. We should not be complacent, but we need to think about how much restriction for how long is tolerable by the majority of New Zealanders, and what costs an extension of the lockdown would bring. These costs are not merely in money, but in all the measures of distress for people in our society – which may, tragically, include increased deaths from other causes.”

No conflict of interest.

Jacqui Maguire, Registered Clinical Psychologist, comments:

Today Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced zero new COVID-19 cases. This may feel like music to your ears. We’ve reached our goal and life can go back to normal now, right?

“It is psychologically important we acknowledge and celebrate this win, for positive reinforcement encourages the continuation of desired behaviour. However, it is imperative we all understand that we are not at the finish line. A singular day of zero reported cases does not mean the same result will be produced tomorrow. For the hordes of people who attended weekend house parties or stood shoulder to shoulder in a takeaway queue, this is an important message.

“Alternatively, some people may have been surprised that they felt less elated than expected by today’s news. There is a neuroscientific explanation for this. When we are actively working to achieve a goal, the reward hormone dopamine is released in anticipation of goal completion.  Each milestone you reach along the journey activates another dopamine release, motivating you to continue on. However when you reach your goal, that release of dopamine drops and is therefore biochemically harder to feel joy. This is known as the arrival fallacy.

“So how as a nation can we maintain our motivation to follow the rules, especially if the battle already feels won?

  1. Change your mindset. Research has shown that until the mid-point of a challenge focusing on what you have achieved spurs motivation, whereas it is more motivating to focus on what’s left to achieve when you are nearing the end. So instead of your bubble purely congratulating yourselves on 5.5 weeks of compliance, reset the focus to ensuring your behaviour enables the Government to announce level 2.
  2. Understand your power. There is a deeply rooted psychological principle called social proof, whereby humans have a well engrained mental shortcut which says “if I see other people acting in a certain way it must be right”. Next time you are tempted to hug a friend, shake a hand or rush past someone in the supermarket aisle, remember you are influencing the behaviour of everyone surrounding you.
  3. Think of what we have to lose. Research has shown that people have a preference for avoiding losses rather than acquiring equivalent gains. For example, it is more desirable to avoid returning to level 4 than reaching level 2. If you have thoroughly enjoyed national lockdown, think of the business owners and potential job losses if we were to return to level 4. Altruism is an extremely powerful motivator.

“This is a long tramp through the wilderness, not a sprint. We’ve had a cracking start, and now we need to set our sights on the horizon and keep walking.

No conflict of interest.