Covid-19 case comes to Wellington – Expert Reaction

Wellingtonians are waiting to hear whether Alert Levels will change, after an infected person from Sydney spent last weekend in the capital, testing positive on their return to Australia.

The person visited several locations, including Te Papa and a bar in the CBD. Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said this morning that a possible lockdown in Wellington is one option that health authorities are currently looking at. The Delta variant of Covid-19 is currently circulating in Sydney, but genome testing is yet to confirm which variant the current case has.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Professor Nick Wilson, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, comments:

“This news about a person infected with the pandemic virus (SARS-CoV-2) travelling to Wellington is a real concern, especially given the increased infectiousness of the delta variant. So, it is very good that the New Zealand authorities are seriously looking at a range of enhanced control options for Wellington.

“Much more information is needed to clarify what the risk might be. But given what we know this morning it would seem reasonable to upgrade the Alert Level for Wellington now e.g., perhaps to an Alert Level 1.5. This could include making masks mandatory in all public indoor settings in Wellington – as per Sydney at present. Other options with a raised Alert Level for Wellington that could help avoid any ‘stay at home’ orders being required, include:

  •     Working from home as much as possible for all non-essential workers.
  •     Consider temporarily closing all potential super-spreading settings (such as cafés, restaurants, bars, night clubs and gyms).
  •     Introduce mandatory QR code scanning for the above named potential super-spreading settings if they are not closed.
  •     Consider cancelling indoor events with more than 20 people.

“These measures could start to be relaxed in a few days’ time if there is no evidence of the infection having spread. But more broadly the Government needs to review how well the Trans-Tasman Bubble is working in terms of benefits and costs. Should there be more controls in place? Probably both countries need to do more to reduce the risk of border system failures – which Australia in particular keeps having but from which New Zealand is also not immune.”

No conflict of interest.

Lesley Gray, Senior Lecturer, Department of Primary Health Care & General Practice, University of Otago, comments:

“We have had no community transmission here in Aotearoa since the end of February 2021 and so it is understandable that we would have become complacent. However, as the world opens up and indeed many in New Zealand are calling for more quarantine-free travel bubbles, the inevitability is that at some point a person testing positive for Covid-19 will arrive in or will have visited New Zealand potentially leading to community transmission.

“For example, in the UK, despite their high levels of vaccine coverage, you cannot go into a shop, supermarket or indoor mall without wearing a mask and on entering a café or restaurant you are not seated until you have either scanned the app or provided your contact details.

“We have to ‘up our game’ and keep it up. Mask wearing in indoor places where mixing with people outside our own household bubble will occur. Tracing – it is vitally important that we all increase our use of the Covid-19 tracer app – scan everywhere you go along with having Bluetooth turned on (we still need to scan, even if Bluetooth is on).

“Currently, quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand does not require a pre-departure covid test. While there are some known limitations with pre-departure tests (such as what the passenger does in the interval between test date, result and flight boarding), it would seem sensible to require some form of negative test prior to boarding any flight to New Zealand, whether quarantine-free or MIQ bound. Potentially if the current Sydney case had a pre-departure test, they may not have boarded their flight or visited New Zealand on this occasion.

“None of us want Alert Level increases in any of our towns or cities, but if the alert level has to rise for Wellington as a precautionary measure to minimise transmission this is a further reminder to maintain, effective hand hygiene, mask up on public transport, up your tracer app use and self-isolate if you feel unwell, have any symptoms or are identified as a possible contact.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Lesley Gray is a named researcher on several Health Research Council grants relating to COVID-19.”

Dr Andrew Chen, Research Fellow, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at The University of Auckland, comments:

“The latest reports of a case travelling to New Zealand from Sydney (and then back again) are a fresh reminder that the virus can travel very quickly, because the people who carry the virus can travel quickly. As the perception of risk increases, people right across the country need to be vigilant and using NZ COVID Tracer to support contact tracing.

“New Zealand has about 1.4 million devices using Bluetooth Tracing, which equates to approximately 44 per cent of the adult population. That’s reassuring, although it would be better if this was at least 60 per cent. Unfortunately, this is only useful if the case was also using Bluetooth Tracing.

“Only about 250-300k people are scanning QR codes or completing manual entries on a daily basis up to Monday this week. That is less than 10 per cent of the adult population and is not high enough to give us confidence that we could use that information to contain an outbreak if it appeared anywhere in the country. Even if a person infected with COVID-19 does not use the app, the Ministry of Health can push contact tracing locations of interest to other people using the app, so that you can still be notified if you have been scanning in. Scanning the QR codes is as much about protecting yourself as it is about protecting the people around you.

“The best time to be scanning QR codes and using NZ COVID Tracer is 14 days before the appearance of a case in the community. The next best time is now – it’s not too late and it may make the difference between us containing the disease confidently or having to enter another lockdown.

“This is also an opportunity to remind people that we should avoid making assumptions about people’s movements or intentions based on the contact tracing locations of interest information. The time periods are usually padded on either side to account for uncertainty around exact timing and potential environmental transmission, and the public simply do not have context for why people may have gone to places or spent time there. Filling in the gaps yourself with your own assumptions and guesses is how misinformation starts – there is enough anxiety without further fuel being added.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have had discussions with the Ministry of Health but no financial relationship.”

Dr Sarb Johal, registered clinical psychologist, comments:

NOTE: These comments were originally posted on Dr Johal’s Twitter account and blog.

“While we wait patiently for more information about possible Covid-19 transmission in Wellington to be collated, prepared and released, let’s figure out how we can continue to be ready for this scenario as it unfolds, and if it happens again.

“If your scanning has dropped off – and for the majority, it has – this is another wake-up call about why we need to keep QR code scanning. Time travel isn’t possible. We can’t go back and start scanning. Start scanning now and KEEP DOING IT.

“You don’t know when then next possible infection scenario will unfold. You can’t see the virus, you can’t know where people have been. All you can do is leave a breadcrumb trail so this can be pieced together later to hopefully avoid lockdowns.

“QR code scanning is laying breadcrumbs. If you don’t make a trail, we can’t see where the trails may have crossed or come into close contact easily. It can be done, but it takes more time. And in that time, the more infections virus may spread.

“Save time. Save lockdowns. Scan. Consider wearing a mask. You’ve got nothing to lose, and we all have potentially a lot to gain. Keep watching and listening for places of interest as we find out more to understand how any potential path of infection may have crossed your breadcrumb trail.

“We can work through this. Take care out there.”

No conflicts of interest declared