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Ashley Bloomfield arrives at a press conference at the Ministry of Health.  (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Ashley Bloomfield arrives at a press conference at the Ministry of Health. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsAugust 19, 2020

The border and the sniff test

Ashley Bloomfield arrives at a press conference at the Ministry of Health.  (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Ashley Bloomfield arrives at a press conference at the Ministry of Health. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

A worker at a managed isolation facility has tested positive for Covid-19 after working for days despite showing symptoms. His case showcases another weakness in the border testing regime that has come under fire over the past week, writes Justin Giovannetti.

The prime minister said people with symptoms should stay home. The director-general of health said everyone working in a managed isolation facility went through a daily health screening. In the absence of routine Covid-19 tests, Ashley Bloomfield said the screening of workers was the country’s line of defence.

The morning after the nation came to a standstill to watch Jacinda Ardern announce the return of Covid-19 a maintenance worker at the Rydges Hotel showed up to work with a cough. He’d had it the previous day, mentioned it during his morning screening and dismissed it as a pre-existing condition.

Despite the Covid-19 symptoms and the level three lockdown in Auckland, the man was waved through to work in a facility where hundreds of returnees who might have the virus are isolated.

The next day he was swabbed as part of new mandatory testing in managed isolation. He kept working and travelling about Auckland. On Sunday, his test came back positive. Genome sequencing has linked his virus with that of a returnee from the US who stayed at the Rydges Hotel and tested positive on the last day of July.

That man is now one of New Zealand’s newest cases of Covid-19. The maintenance worker is not connected to the south Auckland group of cases that will soon become the largest cluster yet in the country’s battle with Covid-19. The origin of that cluster is still unknown, although officials have now ruled out the possibility that someone at a refrigerated warehouse contracted the virus from handling International freight.

Since last Thursday, the same day the maintenance man was tested, the government has faced a barrage of questions about the lack of testing for workers at the border. That day a Newshub report revealed that two-thirds of Auckland’s border staff hadn’t been tested before the latest outbreak. At the Jet Park Hotel, the country’s main quarantine facility that handles nearly all positive Covid-19 cases, only 60% of staff had been tested.

The government had said it believed all workers at the Jet Park were being tested weekly. On June 23 it told the public that regular testing was under way at the managed isolation facilities. Seven weeks later the testing was still not in place. Last Friday a ministerial order was signed making the tests mandatory.

The lack of testing for border staff has been a problem for the government that has worsened daily. This follows a pattern from two months ago with returnees in border facilities: little testing happens, government promises more, little testing happens, cases get out, embarrassment and finger-pointing, government makes testing mandatory, tests finally happen.

The prime minister has said the level of testing so far among workers has “not met my expectations.” Health minister Chris Hipkins has said that what officials were telling him wasn’t happening.

“It has not been happening at the rates that A, we had asked for and B, we were told was happening,” Hipkins told Newshub Nation over the weekend.

Bloomfield has said the testing regime was spooling up but wasn’t in place yet. With the return to level one, the heath system was splitting its attention between the Covid-19 response and providing regular health care, he said. However, the director-general said the cabinet was being informed of testing levels.

However, testing wasn’t only a fall-back in the government’s toolkit, according to Bloomfield.

“Workers in those settings didn’t necessarily feel that there was a need or an imperative to get a test, because every day when they turned up for work they were getting checked for symptoms, along with temperatures being taken and so on. So this was another adjunct,” Bloomfield said yesterday.

The new case of the maintenance worker highlights another shortcoming in the government’s system of checks at the facilities. As housing minister Megan Woods outlined yesterday, the system of health checks was working as intended when it let the man with Covid-19 through.

“He did have a cough, but that was put down to a pre-existing medical condition that he has. So he wasn’t picked up through that, but what we have checked and can confirm is that the health checks occurred on each day that they should have for this individual,” said Woods, who is the minister in charge of the facilities.

This is not the first time health officials have disregarded Covid-19 symptoms.

In mid June two women with Covid-19 were released from managed isolation early with a compassionate exemption. This was before testing was mandatory at the facilities. While the women were supposed to be tested before their release, they weren’t. One of the women had Covid-19 symptoms while still at the facility, but officials dismissed those because of a pre-existing condition.

Woods could not confirm today whether the maintenance worker who was tested last Thursday would have been tested if the new Auckland cluster a few days earlier hadn’t sent the government scurrying to test all border workers quickly.

Pressed by reporters about whether a man with Covid-19 symptoms, working at a managed-isolation facility in the midst of a level three lockdown should not have been tested, Woods admitted that “managed isolation has to be part of a process of continuous improvement”.

Officials will now look at whether workers at border facilities displaying symptoms should be investigated further.

That might not be enough for deputy prime minister Winston Peters, who told reporters yesterday that the maintenance worker’s case constitutes “a second security breach at the border”. While officials have yet to explicitly link any of the recent cases to the border, Peters said it’s clearly a border failure.

“This last guy, he was not tested before he went back. Now that’s as clear as daylight,” said Peters. The New Zealand First leader generally has a combative relationship with the media, but yesterday he cheered them for asking “proper questions” about the failure at the border.

“When you have given an assurance to ministers and the public that certain things are going on,” said Peters of border testing. “When you find out it’s not going on then you have to ask what on earth has happened.”

Would you like heads to roll, he was asked. “Yes I would.”

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