New Zealand has its first cases of community transmission of Covid-19. What does that mean for the country?

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on Monday that New Zealand has its first cases of community transmission of Covid-19.

There were 36 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand this morning, bringing the total to 102.

“Across all cases, there remain currently two that we cannot be certain where the infection came from and we are therefore treating them as community transmission,” Bloomfield said. One of the two cases was a person in the Wairarapa whose case was first reported on Saturday, while the other is a person in Auckland whose case was reported Sunday.

The cases were not connected to overseas travel or other known Covid-19 cases, which could indicate more widespread but hidden community transmission than previously expected, experts say.

“That’s passing another key marker – that is real evidence of community transmission, if you have cases and they’re not connected,” Otago University Department of Public Health’s Professor Michael Baker told Newsroom.

There’s still no cause for panic – limited transmission of any kind can be contained and stamped out, as countries like Singapore have shown us, Baker says.

Community transmission alone doesn’t mean that New Zealand will fall to the same fate as Italy, infectious diseases expert David Murdoch told Newsroom. Murdoch is the Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch, the co-leader of the Infection Group and a Senior Associate in the Department of International Health at John Hopkins School of Public Health.

“Eventually down the road, and hopefully we won’t get there, [there’s] a stage which we want to prevent where there’s so much transmission, it’s uncontrollable, you just have to manage it. That’s a way off, that’s what we want to prevent,” Murdoch said.

“The first few cases popping up, perhaps indicating transmission, it should just reinforce the need to be aggressive. The concern if it just suddenly pops up with no known links, that would indicate that there’s probably more widespread transmission happening that you don’t know.”

Baker agreed, saying, “When you have full-scale community transmission is when you start to see cases that have no known connection with people who returned from overseas. At that point you can no longer trace contacts very effectively.”

Baker is calling on the Government to put in place strict social distancing measures to help stop the virus from spreading further. He wants to see New Zealand go to alert level three or four on the system the Prime Minister announced on Saturday.

“This would support the perspective we have at the moment, which is that we should be doing a huge amount of social distancing as soon as we can and as fast as we can, if we want to stay in containment,” Baker said.

“That means the full suite of – unfortunately – closing schools, reducing the amount of people working in businesses, closing down places where people mix socially and potentially stopping public transport.”

“I would argue from a public health point of view that this is the opportunity now to really make the most of this opportunity New Zealand has to keep it out. We can be the Singapore of the South Pacific in terms of containing this thing,” he said.

“The benefits of doing it now is that we might be able to avoid the kind of lockdown we’re seeing in overseas countries. The more you observe what’s happening overseas, the greater your desire to keep this thing out and manage it and I would say now is a time for maximum effort.”

Murdoch agreed that more options were now on the table.

“That may just activate the ramping up of the big decisions about lockdowns, school closures, restricting any public gatherings, stopping public transport, all those sorts of things – or other forms of social distancing – that would potentially trigger that because it means, right, we’re actually in a different stage, we need to do something a bit more aggressive.”

UPDATE: After Bloomfield’s announcement, Jacinda Ardern said that New Zealand would move to alert level three for 48 hours and then progress into alert level four – lockdown.

Read more of Newsroom’s Covid-19 coverage here. 

Covid-19 is transmitted like the flu. The Ministry of Health recommends that all New Zealanders wash their hands frequently and refrain from touching their face in order to protect themselves and others. Call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if you have any symptoms and have been to any countries or territories of concern or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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