Ashley Bloomfield said today his concern was "orange level"

Bloomfield warns of ‘flashing orange’ alert as Auckland church cluster grows

In two weeks the Mt Roskill group of cases has gone from a small sub-cluster to New Zealand’s fastest growing source of infections. It is linked it to a church meeting held in lockdown and members who ‘don’t accept the science’ of Covid-19.

Ashley Bloomfield has moved his Covid-19 concern level to orange, as cases linked to Auckland’s Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship church cluster continue to grow, despite weeks of restrictions across the region.

About half of New Zealand’s 82 active community cases are now linked to the Mt Roskill group. The original cluster, sourced back to a refrigerated warehouse in south Auckland, has been largely contained and is slowly receding as cases recover.

Concern has now shifted to a sub-cluster that appeared in mid-August at the Mt Roskill church. The sub-cluster has grown quickly in recent days and was linked today to a high school student, a bus driver and its own new sub-cluster.

Bloomfield, the director-general of health, confirmed today that 14 cases have now been linked to a series of “bereavement activities” held in early September that were attended by a person from the church group infected with Covid-19. The funeral isn’t directly linked to the church’s activities.

“My virtual dashboard is flashing orange and it won’t go steady green until we’re confident we’ve got this outbreak well circled,” Bloomfield said today when asked for his level of concern around the pattern of new cases.

Officials have requested the entire Mt Roskill group be retested because of the increasing number of cases. All the cases were infected during lockdown or following the more recent shift down alert levels.

“It’s an orange, it’s raising some flags,” Bloomfield continued. “And that’s why we’re working quickly, including that widespread testing in the school, going out on the bus trips, to make sure we’re catching any possible contacts.”

The unexpected new cases come as Auckland is in alert level 2.5, with residents able to move more freely around the city and congregate in groups of up to 10. Gatherings of up to 50 are allowed at funerals and tangihanga.

A number of close contacts tied to the church group who have tested positive for the virus in recent days were not previously disclosed to contact tracers, Chris Hipkins told RNZ this morning. Police had been brought in as part of efforts to establish whether the omissions were deliberate, said the health minister.

Hipkins said the church cluster has been one of the most challenging health officials have dealt with. One of the difficulties of dealing with the growing church cluster, he said, was down to members “who don’t accept or haven’t previously accepted the science involved here.”

Bloomfield said some in the church group were reluctant to be tested early on. “First of all, they needed to accept that it’s a real thing,” he said, when asked what the group’s resistance to the tests was based on.

Testing levels in the church group have risen in recent weeks, according to Bloomfield, aided by a number of nurses who attend the church and convinced the community of the dangers of Covid-19.

Some of that early reluctance was displayed when church members gathered on August 15 for a meeting during in breach of the level three lockdown. Bloomfield said police were called in order to disperse them. Less than two weeks later, on August 26, the first cases from the church were reported by health officials in Auckland.

The church cases have not been linked through investigative work by contact tracers to the original south Auckland cluster, but genetic testing has established that the virus came from there.

While an epidemiological link hasn’t been made between the church group and the original south Auckland cluster, the link is clear between the church group and the new sub-cluster disclosed today. The new sub-cluster sprang up from bereavement activities and a funeral held on September 2. That was only days after Auckland entered alert level 2.5.

The bereavement sub-cluster was created when someone who was a close contact of a positive case in the church group, and had been tested but was awaiting results, attended the events held in a private home. As a close-contact they should have been isolating until they received their results.

One of the new cases announced today is a student at St Dominic’s Catholic college in Auckland. The student has been linked to the bereavement sub-cluster. The student felt sick on Friday and went home. The school is now closed until next week and close-contacts of the student are being traced.

Another case linked to the new bereavement sub-cluster is a driver on the Northern Express bus service who was driving last Thursday and Friday. The driver was not symptomatic. Health officials say it does not appear the driver had close contacts while working and wore both gloves and a mask.

In a sign of how quickly Covid-19 can spread, the first case in the Mt Roskill church cluster was reported only two weeks ago.



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