There are now three returnees who contracted the virus in the Auckland isolation facility then went out into the community while positive. These are some of the questions that need to be resolved.
At 10.20pm last night the Ministry of Health confirmed that the two cases they’d been treating as probable were now classified as “current infections”. This morning the minister for the Covid-19 response, Chris Hipkins, confirmed that genome sequencing had linked the two cases to the highly transmissible “South African variant” source that led to the so-called “Northland case”: the woman in her 50s who tested positive 10 days after leaving the Pullman on January 13. The good news is that none of her contacts, close or casual, has since tested positive after extensive testing across the region, despite her having visited dozens of locations across the region.
A similar process is under way now, with the ministry releasing a list of “locations of interest” spanning the period January 17 to 26. The pair, an adult and a child, were asymptomatic and had returned two negative tests in isolation, according to the ministry.
What’s going on at the Pullman?
There are now three cases that have leaked out of the Pullman hotel, the fancy Auckland hotel that was one of the original isolation facilities. It is reassuring to some extent that two of the three cases were in the same family bubble, presumably in the same room, but it’s nevertheless a real concern. While the Northland case was on the same floor as the person from whom it was contracted, this new pair were on another floor, leading experts to ask whether the infection might have spread via ventilation systems or water pipes. A previous case at another Auckland isolation hotel is believed to have been transmitted via a lift button.
In the middle of last year it was reported that the facilities at the hotel used as exercise areas were doubling as function spaces for weddings. Things, obviously, have tightened up since then, but Hipkins has said that the hotel will be “emptied out for a bit” for an assessment.
What about the other guests?
According to the ministry the 353 guests who were at the Pullman hotel at the same time as the source case are being contacted, tested and asked to isolate pending a negative result. Apart from the North Auckland pair, all guests and staff have tested negative. There remain, however, more than 20 people whom the ministry has been unable to contact.
How’s the tracing going?
There are relatively few places that the North Auckland pair visited over a 10-day period. That includes, however, 13-and-a-half hours across two days at the BBQ King restaurant in Albany. Hipkins told Newstalk ZB this morning that the adult had not been at work since returning from overseas, and that they were “presumably eating something”, but that length of time at a place where food and drink is at best puzzling.
The pair also have five days with no activity listed apart from, on the fifth day, a visit to a pharmacy. Hipkins said this morning that this was not cause for alarm and they had simply “not been particularly active”.
Is a lockdown a prospect?
Hipkins declared himself optimistic about the situation this morning, and government business appears to be continuing as usual. Asked about any alert level change, he said: “Unlikely at this point, but everything’s always under review.”
Hopefully, as in the Northland case, an influx of negative tests, both from contacts of the new cases and the remaining Pullman returnees (see here if you think you might need a test), will provide reassurance that no ratcheting up of alert level is required. Any further positive cases, however, could trigger action. Remember, for example, that Brisbane was recently placed under a 72-hour lockdown after a single case, a quarantine facility cleaner, was found to have contracted the UK variant of the virus. And with the Auckland anniversary weekend approaching, some, not least iwi groups, are concerned about mass movement of holiday-makers.
What does it mean for the Australian bubble?
The Northland case prompted Australian officials to impose a 72-hour suspension of quarantine-free travel to Australia from New Zealand. That decision, Jacinda Ardern told her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, was “disappointing”. If they’re consistent, you’d presume the clock would now be restarted on that suspension.
Does this mean more border measures?
As any student of the pattern of changes could tell you, almost certainly yes. Testing of returnees after their exit from MIQ (a possibility Hipkins said they dismissed in line with advice last year) seems highly likely. There’s a good chance, too, that in tandem with that requirement, returnees may be asked to isolate at home for a week after they finish their hotel fortnight.
There could be a push to manage the hotel assignments in such a way that you don’t have in the same building, sharing lifts and exercise areas, people who’ve just arrived in the country and people who are about to finish their isolation (as happened in the Pullman case).
More stringent measures could also be coming. Public health expert Michael Baker has called for a “goal of no positive people turning up in New Zealand”. That could mean an additional test on departure and requiring returnees to isolate at home for a period of days before making the journey.