Alert level 2 extended for Wellington – Expert Reaction

The Wellington region will remain at alert level 2 until 11.59 pm Tuesday, two days longer than anticipated.

The government says there’s a need to see more testing results before any change in alert levels can be made. The rest of New Zealand stays at alert level one.

The infected Sydney man’s partner has now tested positive in Australia, and may have been infected near the end of their Wellington visit or on the flight home. No new cases in the community were reported today.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“The two-day extension of alert level 2 for Wellington will limit the risk of onward transmission of the virus if it turns out anyone was infected by the visitor from Sydney last weekend. The man’s partner has now tested positive back in Australia, and it’s likely they became infected while they were still in Wellington or on their way home. The most likely scenario this points to is that the man entered his infectious period towards the end of his stay in New Zealand.

“Although it’s good news that the majority of the 2400 contacts identified have now tested negative, it’s still possible there are other contacts that were missed, for example if people didn’t scan in everywhere they’ve been. Given what we know now, finding and testing contacts from Monday morning is particularly important.

“If there is even one case lurking out there, it has the potential to spread like wildfire because the Delta variant is so infectious and our vaccination coverage is too low at the moment to slow it down much. New South Wales has one of the best contact tracing systems in the world, but it hasn’t been able to keep up with the speed the virus is spreading.

“If anyone was infected on Sunday or Monday, now is around the time they would most likely develop symptoms. So it’s essential you stay alert for symptoms, especially if you were in Wellington last weekend, and get tested immediately if you do feel even slightly unwell. High testing rates will help authorities have confidence to relax alert level restrictions as soon as possible.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am partly funded by MBIE for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.”

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

“The decision to extend Alert Level 2 restrictions in Wellington for another two days until midnight on Tuesday 29 June is fully justified.

“More than two thousand people were considered exposed to a potentially infectious traveller from Sydney who visited multiple crowded indoor venues last weekend in Wellington up until they left on Monday 21 June. The traveller was infected with the more infectious Delta variant of Covid-19. Given the timing, it is possible that some of these contacts are still incubating this infection and will only be identified in the coming few days, though the risk is now low.

“This was a real pressure-test for our response system, and it identified several gaps that need to be filled. The virus has changed, and our response needs to change to keep ahead of it.

“Firstly, there is a need for mandatory use of QR codes when entering high-risk indoor venues to support rapid contact tracing. When authorities went to send out electronic notifications to all of the people who had attended these indoor venues with the infected case from Sydney, only a small fraction of people could be reached. This problem was because scanning was at a low level because it is not required. This situation obviously needs to change.

“Secondly, we need to build mass masking into our Alert Level system to prevent transmission of the Covid-19 virus in potential outbreak situations. When Wellington was put into Alert Level 2 after exposure to this infected case from Sydney, people were back at work and mixing with others indoors and hopefully maintaining some physical distance (the 1-metre and 2-meter rules depending on the situation). But there was no requirement to wear masks in most indoor environments. What we have learned over the last year is that this virus is spread by aerosols – which are not stopped by the 2-meter rule. As we have seen in Sydney, it only takes fleeting contact indoors to get this infection. We need to add mass masking indoors to our Alert Level system, which is widely used across Australia and in many other countries.

“Thirdly, this episode in Wellington, and the evolving outbreaks in Australia, indicates a need to review the green zone with Australia. Government has suspended travel from all of Australia for three days which provides an opportunity to assess the measures in place to minimise the risk of importing Covid-19 cases. The green zone has generally worked well and can hopefully be resumed after this pause and with additional precautions.

“These points are expanded on in a blog we published on 25 June.”

No conflict of interest

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

“The news today on the alert level two extension for 48 hours seems reasonable, given the fact that still no positive cases were identified from all those test results so far in the Wellington Region. My family live in the Wairarapa, therefore I am concerned about the indeterminate result from Masterton. While this could relate to the test sample not being good enough to test, it can also indicate that the test was too early to detect Covid-19 and will have to be repeated. Let’s hope it is the former, and it will come back as a negative test in due course.

“I have been calling for pre-departure testing to be employed in the trans-Tasman bubble so I am heartened to hear this is being considered.”

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

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

“Looks like Wellington has probably “dodged a bullet” but we can’t relax yet”

“The NZ Government has made a wise decision to keep at the current Alert Level 2 settings for Wellington for at least a few more days – given the major problems being caused by the new Delta variant in Australia. Also, we now know that the case who visited Wellington was able to infect others – given his partner has subsequently tested positive. It is however, reassuring news that thousands of test results for people in Wellington are all negative and that the wastewater test results for Friday are also negative.

“Nevertheless, a key issue now is for the NZ Government to urgently upgrade various COVID-19 defences. These include upgrading the Alert Level system with a particular focus on mandatory mask use in various indoor settings, making the COVID Tracer App compulsory for high risk indoor venues, and rapidly vaccinating all remaining border and frontline health workers (with all these and other points detailed in a recent scholarly blog that we recently published.

“Furthermore, there would seem to be a very strong case for adopting a period of pre-departure testing once quarantine-free travel with Australia re-opens. This could be combined with testing on arrival in NZ. Similarly, an Australian epidemiologist has been arguing for such testing for those moving in and out of the areas under stay-at-home orders in Australia. Results of some of these tests (eg, rapid antigen tests) can be available in 15 minutes and so could have minimal impact on time delays for arriving travellers. Saliva tests using PCR would take more time to get results – but should typically allow an infected person to be identified within at least the first day of their time in the community in NZ. The pros and cons of such different tests and how they are used to protect the Trans-Tasman Bubble need urgent consideration.”

No conflict of interest