Coronavirus crisis: New transmission fears as NZ records 13 COVID-19 cases

Ben McKay and staff writersAAP
VideoIn New Zealand, they're investigating if the source of their latest coronavirus outbreak, is from imported freight.

New Zealand officials are investigating the possibility its first coronavirus cases in more than three months were infected by imported freight.

The concerning news comes as Auckland’s COVID-19 outbreak swelled to at least 21 people overnight, after health officials announced 13 new positive tests.

According to New Zealand news website Stuff, officials are testing cool storage facility Americold in Auckland for COVID-19 where one of the newly infected residents worked, with the possibility that the virus could have travelled into the country on refrigerated freight.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Camera IconDr Ashley Bloomfield. Credit: Mark Tantrum/Getty Images

New Zealand’s Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield confirmed “environmental testing” of the storage facility would take place as well as looking for transmission between staff.

“We do know from studies overseas that, actually, the virus can survive in some refrigerated environments for quite some time,” he said.

“We start by looking at all the options and ruling then out, and that’s the position we’re in at the moment.”

He said the cool storage facility where the man worked had been closed down along with three other sites the company had around the city, with its 160 staff working across the facilities undergoing testing.

New Zealand has been rocked by the deadly virus’ return into the community this week after 102 days without local transmission.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Camera IconPrime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Credit: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the discovery of four cases prompted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to announce a 60-hour lockdown the country’s biggest city, which began at midday on Wednesday.

Health officials have moved swiftly to locate, isolate and test close cases since then, resulting in the surge in numbers.

One of the new cases confirmed on Thursday is a student at Mount Albert Grammar, the country’s second-largest school with 3000 pupils.

The student attended class on Monday, and local health authorities said they were contacting and isolating around 100 close contacts they had while at school.

Mt Albert Grammar School, where a student has tested positive for COVID-19.
Camera IconMt Albert Grammar School, where a student has tested positive for COVID-19. Credit: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

There are also four new cases of employees at two Auckland businesses and eight family members of those employees, all linked to the index case.

Dr Boomfield also announced one more probable case.

Ms Ardern said the cluster of cases was “serious but being dealt with in urgent but calm and methodological way”.

The contact tracing, isolation and testing process is crucial in New Zealand which - unlike other countries - is pursuing an elimination strategy of the virus.

It proved stunningly successful back in autumn, when a 51-day lockdown eradicated the virus from the community and allowed Kiwis to live lives free of any restrictions, aside from border controls.

Since then, any cases in NZ have been identified within the mandatory isolation regime at the border.

That was until Tuesday, when the first positive cases in the community rocked Aucklanders.

A relatively deserted Parnell Rise as Aucklanders return to level three lockdown.
Camera IconA relatively deserted Parnell Rise as Aucklanders return to level three lockdown. Credit: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Dr Bloomfield said isolation of any close or casual contacts to positive cases was the primary response to the outbreak.

“Only by doing that will we be able to contain it. Also that will also give us great clues as to what the source might have been,” he said.

“We will find the source, I have no doubt about that.”

The outbreak has also returned New Zealanders to a lockdown tradition; waiting for Ms Ardern’s daily 1pm press conference to learn the numbers of new cases.

The government will decide at a crunch Cabinet meeting on Friday whether to extend or deepen the lockdown, a decision largely based on case numbers.

They must also consider whether to postpone a national election slated for September 19.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the government would also look at new economic assistance as needed.

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