The tourist capital has been hit hard and the number of positive tests is climbing while the rest of the country seems to be levelling off. Paul Taylor reports.

Queenstown Lakes District’s Covid-19 cases have more than doubled since the beginning of April, even as nationally the rate of new cases appears to slow.

Eighty people are confirmed or probable cases in the South Island’s holiday hotspot, as of Sunday.

That means the district – Queenstown, Wanaka and the surrounding towns – now has 6.02 percent of New Zealand’s Covid -19 coronavirus cases, despite a resident population of about 42,000 relative to New Zealand’s 4.8 million (under one percent of the total).

It also has nearly 39 percent of the cases in the Southern district, the country’s worst affected district health board area. The Southern District Health Board (SDHB) serves a population of about 330,000, including the port city of Dunedin, which has a population of about 114,000 and 49 cases.

The Southern district case numbers have risen to 206.

A media release from the SDHB last Saturday, April 4, when 59 had tested positive in Queenstown Lakes District, said the numbers were not surprising.

“Queenstown is a magnet for international travellers and it is no surprise that it’s among the first places to see significant numbers. Tourism and the World Hereford Conference were among the first sources of COVID-19 in Queenstown and led to cases in the general population.

“The increase in numbers observed over the past two weeks is a predictable result of these initial sources of infection. Prior to lockdown commencing, transmission was able to happen naturally and in most cases, before sick people had symptoms.”

The SDHB declined to comment further on Queenstown’s high case numbers when asked by Newsroom on Thursday, nor would it arrange an interview with medical officer of health Dr Susan Jack.

In its April 4th release it said the effect of the lockdown will not be seen for at least another week or two because of the two-week incubation period for COVID-19 and the fact that infected people may still pass the virus on to those in their isolation bubble.

In Queenstown, where many young travellers and people on work visas share often share crowded accommodation, the spread within individual bubbles could be greater than elsewhere.

Queenstown Lakes District Council estimates there are usually between 3500 and 4000 migrant workers in the district, many on 12-month working holiday visas, working in hospitality and the adventure sectors.

It is not known how many have returned home, but more than 2000 people have registered with the council as needing welfare assistance, a scheme initially aimed at migrants who had lost their jobs.

Queenstown and the Southern District’s first Covid -19 case was on March 15. A Danish woman in her 30s arrived in town as part of a crew for a reality TV travel show filming former super middleweight world champion boxer Mikkel Kessler and his family.

The woman, the crew and the Danish boxer, his wife and three children were placed in isolation in three houses in Queenstown. It is understood they have since all returned to Denmark.

Until April 1, the SDHB did not provide a territorial breakdown of cases, but provided some information on individual cases which included locations, such as a Spanish man in his 60s admitted to Lakes District Hospital on March 18 and various Queenstown and Wanaka residents who had returned from overseas.

On March 22, Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield identified The World Hereford Conference, attended by 400 delegates in Queenstown from March 9 to 13, as a cluster.

At first, the majority of cases linked to the conference were people who had returned to their home towns in other parts of New Zealand. The delegates also went on pre and post tours of the country, including attending the Wanaka A&P show.

No one who organised the conference has tested positive for Covid -19, although one has been tested and returned a negative result, and it is unclear how many of the current 33 cases are Queenstown Lakes District residents.

SDHB communications advisor Eirwen Mitchell told Newsroom: “Cases counted as part of clusters do not mean that everyone attended the event directly. They could also be contacts of those who were at the original event or location.

“It is also hard to break this down accurately. Some people could have attended an event and not contracted it there, but caught it later as a contact of an attendee.”

On March 24, Queenstown’s Community Based Assessment Centre opened, initially at Lake Hayes Pavilion before moving to the Queenstown’s Memorial Centre downtown, so it could double its capacity.

As of Wednesday, April 8, 435 swabs had been taken. Thirty-seven returned positive tests, or 8.5 percent. Nationally, 61,167 tests had been conducted by Sunday April 12, and there are 1,049 confirmed cases, which means only 1.7% are positive.

Primary health network WellSouth could not provide information on how many tests had been conducted at GP practices in the district, or the CBAC in Wanaka.

On March 30, the SDHB announced a nurse at Queenstown Lakes District Hospital had tested positive for Covid -19 and 36 staff were to be tested. Another nurse tested positive from those tests, and another 38 staff and contractors were tested, as were the small number of patients and members of the public who had attended the hospital. But all tested negative.

The hospital was deep-cleaned. It has just one ventilator and one back-up, but no ICU ward. Critical patients are generally transferred by helicopter to Dunedin Hospital.

Then, on April 1, the SDHB began publishing a territorial breakdown, announcing that Queenstown Lakes District had 31 cases by March 30, and 38 by April 1.

Since then, more than three people a day on average have been identified as confirmed or probable cases in Queenstown Lakes District. There are now 1330 confirmed and probable cases in New Zealand and four people have died.

Whether the district’s numbers continue to rise remains to be seen. Queenstown usually welcomes three million visitors per year, and many were still arriving in town before the Government announced the 14-day self-isolation rule for all arrivals on March 14.

But that is almost a month ago now. The last international flight arrived from Brisbane on March 28, carrying one passenger on a repatriation flight. The same aeroplane flew back to Brisbane at 5pm, carrying a small number of Australian citizens. There will be no scheduled international flights for at least three months, Queenstown Airport Corporation has confirmed.

The final scheduled Air New Zealand domestic flight departed from the town on April 2. There will be no passenger flights, and no tourists, for the foreseeable future.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

Paul Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Queenstown

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