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motorists queueing for Covid-19 tests in the rain in Ōtara
Motorists queue at the Ōtara testing station. (Photo: DAVID ROWLAND / AFP)

PoliticsFebruary 16, 2021

The critical factors that will determine if lockdown is lifted

motorists queueing for Covid-19 tests in the rain in Ōtara
Motorists queue at the Ōtara testing station. (Photo: DAVID ROWLAND / AFP)

The government faces a tough decision later this week: play it safe and extend the lockdown or relax restrictions. Justin Giovannetti looks at what factors are at play.

Aucklanders are likely to learn around midday on Wednesday whether this snap lockdown will be a short blip or another long slog through the alert levels. The next 24 hours will be crucial.

The first day after the Valentine’s cases were announced has shown some encouraging signs, with the outbreak centred around three cases in a south Auckland family not expanding. Some of that was expected, with only limited testing on Sunday afternoon.

Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, said the lack of new community cases yesterday was “an encouraging sign, but it’s the days ahead that will be crucial”.

If the chain of transmission is short, so could be this lockdown. It’s clear to Bloomfield and the rest of government that this third lockdown in Auckland could be fraying some nerves. “Covid-19 can feel like being on a rollercoaster that you haven’t actually bought a ticket for,” said Bloomfield.

There have been some initial similarities between these cases and the August cluster. Both began with short three-day lockdowns and no clear link to the border. The results from genomic testing has been equally puzzling in both outbreaks, with the first known community cases not matching anyone in quarantine.

The August cluster eventually totalled 179 cases and nearly two months of restrictions in the supercity. By the second day of that cluster, 17 cases had been detected across multiple businesses and regions.

That second day will be today in the chronology of this outbreak, although initial signs are more positive that fewer, if any, new cases will be detected.

Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield arrive at the Beehive for yesterday afternoon’s press conference (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

This community outbreak, however, has the added wrinkle that the mother, father and daughter infected with Covid-19 are carrying the more transmissible and possibly more deadly UK variant of the virus.

Over the next two days, officials in the Beehive will be closely watching the situation before the prime minister faces the nation on Wednesday. Speaking with reporters yesterday, Jacinda Ardern said there has yet to be any discussion whether the lockdown could be extended by a few days, a full fortnight or altogether dropped.

Instead, Ardern and Bloomfield established some of the factors they’ll be keeping an eye on: is the virus spreading, where did it come from and can we contain it?

“We build a picture as we go on,” said Ardern. By Wednesday, health officials will need a clearer picture to present to cabinet if restrictions are to be relaxed.

That means they’ll need the results from the 42 close contacts of the family, most of which have not come back yet. Testing and serology results from colleagues from the mother’s workplace and at Papatoetoe High School where her daughter studies will also be helpful. And then the first set of results from wider community testing of symptomatic people will play a role, to rule out the possibility that the virus has spread beyond the family.

Sewage testing in south Auckland has so far found no presence of the virus, which gives health officials some limited confidence that widespread transmission hasn’t occurred yet.

A jump to level four seems unlikely. Ardern said yesterday that even with a more infectious variant of the virus, level three restrictions should be enough to reduce any spread and contain it. It’s also possible this outbreak will fizzle out. The country has had up to nine outbreaks through the border so far and most haven’t spread beyond one or two people.

Finding the source could be key this time. While the way the August cluster started is still unknown, in this case, someone within the family should hold a clue. The mother cleans laundry from international flights for LSG SkyChefs, a German giant that services airlines around the world. It’s unlikely she got the virus from linens, but could have picked it up from a colleague who cleans international flights after they’ve landed.

Although the woman is part of a regular testing cycle, her case was only picked up when she sought a swab after feeling ill.

The daughter showed symptoms first and officials aren’t ruling out that she might have caught it at her school, which has 1,500 students, and then spread it to her parents. That would be a very concerning discovery.

Both the mother and daughter are acute cases, which means the virus is still quite active. The mother hasn’t been at work since February 5. Tests show the father’s infection is newer still. He’s a tradie and while some of his co-workers have shown some symptoms, all their tests have come back negative so far.

The family has left a number of locations of interest where they have stopped and shopped in recent days. Most are in South Auckland, but there’s also a breadcrumb trail of petrol stations and fast-food joints down the motorway to New Plymouth where some of the family holidayed over Waitangi weekend. Friends who travelled with them have returned negative results.

New Zealanders from all over the country would have been in New Plymouth over the weekend, enjoying many of the same tourist spots as the family. The government now needs anyone with a sniffle or new cough to be tested. While the attention is focused on south Auckland, an unlucky tourist from Invercargill to Kerikeri might have shared an unfortunate moment with the family.

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