Ashley Bloomfield photo: Hagen Hopkins / Getty
Ashley Bloomfield photo: Hagen Hopkins / Getty

The BulletinMarch 2, 2021

People are confused. So what are the rules on testing and self-isolation?

Ashley Bloomfield photo: Hagen Hopkins / Getty
Ashley Bloomfield photo: Hagen Hopkins / Getty

Amid reports of confusing information being given to people after Covid tests, we asked our readers what they’d been told – and sought to clarify what the rules really are.

When one of the people who has now been confirmed as having Covid-19 went to work at KFC, it represented an apparent breakdown in communication. 

As a family member of casual plus contacts of the Papatoetoe cluster, she should have been self-isolating – but told Newshub she was never informed of this. The woman’s account is strongly disputed by the government, with Jacinda Ardern saying the individual was called or texted 15 times. But it has prompted many to say they’re unclear about just what the requirements around isolation and testing are. 

There also seems to be some confusion about the difference between “stay home” and “self-isolate” as distinct instructions. We asked readers of The Bulletin what they had been told after being tested, and while the vast majority of respondents said they’d had good, clear instructions, that wasn’t true for everyone. But first …

What are the rules? 

A list of information on self-isolation, and when it should be undertaken, can be found on the Ministry of Health website. But at today’s 1pm media briefing, in response to a question from The Spinoff’s Justin Giovannetti, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said the information on this page was general information, and the advice becomes more specific when we’re in an outbreak. 

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Critically, those who have been at any of the recent locations of interest at the relevant times should follow the advice on the locations of interest page and call Healthline.

“Anybody who is having a test anywhere because they are symptomatic should isolate until they get that result back,” Bloomfield said.

If you’re a close contact you need to isolate until you get results, according to Bloomfield. Casual contacts don’t necessarily need to, although in some cases they will and they should get clear instructions from health officials on their status.

Key points from the general advice on the self-isolation guidelines page: 

  • People who have been in close contact with a confirmed or probable case of Covid-19 must self-isolate. 
  • People waiting for a test result under alert level three or four must self-isolate. (Remember, at levels three and four almost everyone should be staying at home almost all of the time.)
  • Self-isolation means keeping yourself away from those in your household as much as possible, to avoid passing anything on to them. 
  • Anyone who is unwell should be staying at home generally. This includes if you have tested negative for Covid-19. 

But it’s complicated

The individual circumstances people find themselves in don’t always neatly apply to the rules. A good rule of thumb is if in doubt, don’t go out.

Forms are being handed out to people when they get tested, with tickboxes designed to show people which rules apply in their particular case. In several instances seen by The Spinoff, they have been given out to people getting tested without anything ticked, creating the potential for confusion. In today’s 1pm media briefing, Bloomfield said he was aware of this and his team was following up.

As far as the Auckland region is concerned, those forms can be found on the Auckland Regional Public Health Service website.

The form for people who are being tested because they have symptoms is here (PDF). The form for people who are being tested for other reasons is here (PDF). A reminder: if you’re not symptomatic and none of the locations of interest apply to you, don’t go and clog up the system by getting a test.

Also from ARPHS, information for people who have been asked to self-isolate while waiting for their result is here (PDF). The shorter version: “Stay at home except for getting medical care … Separate yourself from other people in your home as much as you can … Wear a face mask or face covering …  Avoid sharing household items … Clean and disinfect high touch surfaces such as door handles … Do not have visitors in your home. People who drop things off to you should leave them on the doorstep.”

Stories from the tested

Sean wrote in from Auckland having had the tickbox problem, saying “we weren’t given formal written advice (boxes not ticked) and we weren’t verbally told to self-isolate. Because we both had symptoms we did anyway out of an abundance of caution, but I can’t imagine this as being necessarily universal.” 

Earl took his wife for a test in Pukekohe while Auckland was briefly back in level one, because she had been coughing at night. “She took the day off work, we made an appointment and went for a test at Pukekohe. It was all pretty efficient, the doctor she saw diagnosed an allergy and gave a prescription for medication and precisely no information about isolation until the result came through, not verbal, not written, nothing.” 

Alice and her partner were notified they were “casual plus contacts” of a case, as they had scanned in at Botany Kmart at the relevant time. She said the initial instructions were very confusing and mixed, but after about a day they cleared up and have been consistent ever since. 

Initially the couple saw on the Ministry of Health website they could go back to work after negative test results. The next day they saw a breaking news alert saying they’d have to isolate for 14 days. After calling Healthline they were told they’d need second tests, and as for their housemates, the woman on the other end of the phone “specifically told us she would check as the rules were constantly changing”. A call came in later, telling the couple they needed to strictly self-isolate, but as long as they did so the housemates could continue going about their normal lives. 

The saga continued. “The following morning we received a further call from Healthline. We repeated our concerns about our living situation and the need for us to isolate effectively. By this stage, my father and our flatmate had both been sent home by their employers for a test (contrary to health advice) because of contact with us.” 

Alice concluded by saying “my experience has been immense frustration and confusion initially, followed by incredulity at how hard it is to get tested, and then daily check-ins with a consistent message”.  

Another person who was at Kmart had a very different experience. Alastair said his fiancee had been flagged as a contact, and the messaging given to her was “so utterly at odds with the current [negative] narrative”.

The calls from the ministry come in daily. “Every day they take her through an extremely in-depth line of questioning. Not only do they ask her if she is self-isolating, they ask her to define what it means to self-isolate. They ask if she is experiencing symptoms. They ask how her mental health is. They ask if she needs financial assistance. They ask if she is in an abusive home environment. They ask if she needs help getting any prescription medication. They ask if she has a pet that needs anything!”

Many of those sending in feedback made it clear the messaging they received was clear and direct. Beth said, “I have been told to self-isolate every single time I got a test. I’ve had four and it’s always been because of slight symptoms not because of a place of interest. Every single time I’m told to self-isolate. The TV says it, government says it, testers say it. I find it difficult to accept that the message isn’t getting through.” 

Revel was another who had clear and accurate instructions. “Had mild symptoms, called Healthline, got told to have a test and stay at home until I did. Did a drive-through test, did not enjoy it. Was told to go home, stay there, and wait for the test results. The messaging was very clear. Props to the people that dealt with my case.”

Vanessa in Tauranga was given comprehensive instructions about staying at home until the test results came back. “When I asked if I could go for a walk from home to exercise, the nurse said I can but to wear my mask and stay two metres away from anyone else.”  

As for results, some people are finding there’s a delay getting them. Laura from Christchurch said she was told that she was low risk when tested, and so didn’t need to self-isolate. 

“What horrified me was that the doctor who did the test said I would get a text message when the result came back, yet I did not. When I phoned the medical centre a few days later the nurse told me the result had come back the day after I’d had the test, and, “we only tell people the result if it’s positive.” 

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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