Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

SocietyMay 31, 2020

Live updates, May 31: No new cases, earthquake strikes near New Plymouth

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work here. New Zealand is currently in alert level two – read The Spinoff’s giant explainer about what that means here. For official government advice, see here.

The Spinoff’s coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak is funded by The Spinoff Members. To support this work, join The Spinoff Members here.

2.50: Earthquake near New Plymouth

A large earthquake has struck near New Plymouth. A preliminary report from Geonet says the quake was magnitude 4.9 and struck 35km north of the city, at a depth of 11km. Several people have reported feeling the quake as far away as Te Awamutu.

2.20pm: Police drive into a crowd as protests rage across US

Police have driven into a crowd of people in Brooklyn, New York, as protests over racism and police violence continue across the US.

The protests taking place in dozens of major cities were sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. Former police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with murder after kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, leading to his death. Floyd, an African-American man, repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” as he died.

Several of the demonstrations over Floyd’s death have been marked by violence. In Salt Lake City, a man with a hunting bow pulled over in his car and threatened protesters. Footage shows him appearing to shoot an arrow before being swarmed and tackled to the ground.

Curfews have been imposed in several cities and the National Guard has been deployed in 14 states, as authorities struggle to rein in the protests.

2pm: Today’s data, charted

There hasn’t been a new case of Covid-19 in New Zealand for nine days. The country’s number of recovered cases now dwarfs its active cases 1481 to one.

The one remaining active case of Covid-19 is in Auckland, which remains the place with most infections in the country.

1pm: No new cases of Covid-19, one active case remaining

For the ninth day in a row, there are no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand.

The total number of confirmed and probable cases in New Zealand still stands at 1,504.

The number of people who have recovered from Covid-19 remains at 1481. Twenty-two people have died.

Only one active case of Covid-19 remains in the country. No-one in New Zealand is receiving hospital care for the virus.

Yesterday, 2111 tests were carried out, bringing the total completed to date to 280,983.

The NZ COVID Tracer app has now recorded 468,000 registrations – an increase of 10,000 since this time yesterday.

In terms of numbers of new cases, the last nine days looks like this: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, and today, 0.

12.45pm: New case numbers expected soon

The Ministry of Health is set to release New Zealand’s latest Covid-19 case numbers via press release at 1pm. There is only one remaining active case of Covid-19 left in the country, leaving the prospect open that this announcement could reveal we have eliminated the virus.

11.50am: Chief science adviser hopeful on border reopening

The prime minister’s chief science advisor Juliet Gerrard has made the case for a nimble and selective approach to reopening New Zealand’s borders. In an article for the Herald this morning, Gerrard and research analyst Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke explain the risks posed by opening the borders to countries with major Covid-19 outbreaks like the US, and the comparatively small danger of allowing incoming travel from places like Australia or China, where the virus is more under control. They argue that New Zealand could safely reopen its borders in the near future, provided it’s only to countries that are recording consistently low, or zero, increases in Covid-19 case numbers.

However, that comes with a note of warning. Border reopening should be accompanied by mandatory temperature testing for travelers, along with virus testing and possibly antibody testing, Gerrard and Chiaroni-Clarke say. Health authorities should also be empowered to change border restrictions quickly in response to any spikes in case numbers overseas. They raise the example of Singapore, which was thought to have its Covid-19 outbreak mostly under control, only to see a big rise in infection numbers.

Read the full article here.

10.35am: Baker calls for health reform, warns of future threats

Epidemiologist Michael Baker has called on the government to set up a New Zealand centre for disease control as he warns of potentially greater threats than Covid-19 on the horizon. Speaking on RNZ this morning, Baker said New Zealand may have avoided lockdown if a CDC was coordinating resourcing and informing the health response to the pandemic. He pointed to the example of Taiwan, where the quick actions of a central disease control agency have helped businesses and schools stay open throughout the crisis. “We need to have systems for responding much faster to these threats,” he said.

New Zealand’s pandemic response was coordinated by the Ministry of Health, and enacted by 20 DHBs across the country. Some DHBs have been criticised for elements of their response. Concerns were raised about the availability of PPE at Waikato Hospital after three nurses tested positive for the disease. Waitematā DHB chief Andrew Brant apologised to Waitākere Hospital health workers who were infected with Covid-19 while treating members of the St Margarets Rest Home cluster. Pressure is on the government to reform the DHB system after a critical review from Heather Simpson said it had led to fragmented, inconsistent decision-making and under-resourcing.

Baker said the CDC could be needed in future, as there are several “highly plausible” disease threats that would wreak even worse devastation than Covid-19. He warned particularly of the threat of bioengineered diseases, which could be used in terrorist attacks. “There are unfortunately many grim scenarios that I think we need to prepare for,” he said.

9.50am: Protests continue outside White House

Protesters are clashing with Secret Service agents outside the White House as demonstrations over the death of George Floyd take place across the US. Former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin has been fired and charged with murder after kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, leading to his death. Protests over the death began in Minnesota and have now spread to dozens of major cities including Washington DC. Live footage shows protesters demonstrating outside the White House for a second day running. The Secret Service made six arrests at yesterday’s protests on Pennsylvania Avenue.

9.25am: Should we go straight to alert level one?

For eight days now New Zealand has had zero new cases of Covid-19. Yesterday was the second consecutive day with only one known active case. At 1pm today we could be reporting that there is no known person in the country with the disease. Given all that, it’s no wonder there are so many – politicians, businesses, columnists – calling on the government to scrap plans to reassess on June 8 and instead move immediately down to alert level one.

Writing for The Spinoff this morning, microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles warns against undue haste. Modelling lays out the importance of consolidating wins. The examples of Sinagpore and South Korea show how quickly the virus can roar back, and how damaging that can be. Critically, there’s the issue of the incubation period.

Dr Wiles writes: “Because it takes roughly two to ten days for people to develop symptoms, our string of no cases reflects the beginning of level two. We’ve only just opened up our bars and nightclubs and increased our gathering sizes. If the virus is out there, we’ve just increased its opportunities to show us where it’s at. Now we just need to wait to see what happens.”

Read the full article here.

8.40am: The other global success stories on Covid-19

New Zealand is often hailed as a global success story when it comes to its Covid-19 pandemic response, but several countries have even more impressive statistics. Mongolia hasn’t had a single death from the virus, and has no cases of community transmission. Now CNN has written on Vietnam, which has recorded just 328 cases of Covid-19 and no deaths, despite having several dense cities and a population of 97 million. Some are skeptical about those numbers, but a Ho Chi Minh City infectious diseases doctor Guy Thwaites told the outlet they match what he is seeing on the ground. “I go to the wards every day, I know the cases, I know there has been no death,” he said.

Read the full story here.

8.15am: The story behind SpaceX’s spacesuits

If you want to know more about the distinctive spacesuits Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken wore for the SpaceX launch this morning, BusinessInsider has written on the design process. SpaceX founder Elon Musk said he and his team spent three years designing the suits to “look good and work well”. That task is harder than it sounds. As the story says, “spacesuits are essentially complex, personalised, human-shaped spacecraft”. SpaceX’s suits were a collaboration between Jose Fernandez, a costume designer for superhero movies such as The Avengers, and technical experts.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken ahead of the SpaceX launch (Photo: SpaceX)

8am: First ever crewed space launch by a private company

SpaceX has carried out the first ever crewed space launch by a private company. Two NASA astronauts are in orbit aboard a rocket designed by the company founded by Elon Musk after a launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida this morning. The astronauts, Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken, now have a 24-hour journey ahead of them to get to the International Space Station.

The launch happened on time at 7.22am (3.22pm US Eastern Time). Everything has gone to plan so far, with three stages of the launch being carried out without issue. A first booster rocket separated from the Falcon-9 rocket shortly after liftoff, and landed on a barge. The Crew Dragon module, which the astronauts are on board, separated from Falcon-9 around 7.40am. The rocket is due to dock at the ISS at around 2.30pm tomorrow.

7.30am: Yesterday’s key stories

There was no change to any of the main numbers, with no new cases for the eighth day in a row and one active case remaining.

US president Donald Trump followed through on threats to withdraw from the World Health Organisation, saying China had “total control” over the global health body.

National’s Covid-19 response spokesperson Amy Adams joined the chorus of politicians calling for a quicker move to alert level one, hours after epidemiologist Sir David Skegg was quoted in the Weekend Herald as saying “people who advocate a move to level one straight away are either ignorant or indulging in political posturing”.

Covid-19 testing centres began closing their doors, with GPs expected to take over the majority of testing in the next couple of weeks.

The New Zealand Warriors became the country’s first major professional sports team to return to competition following the Covid-19 shutdown, playing the St George Illawarra Dragons in Australia – and making NRL history in the process with a spectacular 18-0 victory.

Read yesterday’s live updates here

Keep going!