How many international travellers came here with Covid-19, and how many have been stopped by enforced quarantine from spreading the virus? Farah Hancock shows how border controls worked
As an island nation New Zealand has a vast salty buffer between us and the virus. Our second line of defence is a virtual moat of 14 days quarantined in a hotel for most, but not all, arrivals.
Since late February 567 travellers are known to have carried a virus into New Zealand.
From these known travellers, and perhaps others who were never tracked down, the Covid-19 stowaway they brought with them has gone on to infect another 930 people, killing 21.
The quarantine implemented in earnest on April 9 aims to catch and trap the virus hitching a ride on any returning New Zealanders. Since facilities were first established, 25 cases have been caught.
With strict controls around hugs, bubbles, work and schools being relaxed in Level 2 and no vaccine likely for at least several months, our quarantine is more important than ever.
If a case gets in, there’s more chance it could spark a cluster like that at Marist College, where one unknowingly infected school teacher started a chain of 94 other infections.
How does it work?
Travellers screened on arrival and showing symptoms are sent to quarantine. Here they’re tested and classed as a confirmed case, probable case, or not a case. Those who test negative are then moved to a different area of the quarantine hotel.
Arrivals who aren’t showing symptoms are sent to managed isolation. If they develop symptoms during the 14 days of isolation they’re shifted to a quarantine hotel.
To be able to leave they must have finished 14 days isolation and if ill, have been clear of any symptoms for 48 hours.
Before these measures were in place, 558 cases were directly linked to travel. Since mandatory quarantine or managed-isolation measures were introduced, nine cases have been directly linked.
The facilities first made available on March 26 for people unable to self-isolate have been a temporary home to 6400 people.
There has been no indication the current rules requiring isolation will be changed. Even at alert Level 1, border restrictions are listed as a possible measure.
Who is allowed in the country?
The borders closed to non-New Zealand citizens on March 19. Since then data from NZ Customs show 11,474 people with non-New Zealand passports have arrived in the country by air.
There are limited exceptions to the closure rule, and they can seek approval from Immigration New Zealand.
Children, partners and legal guardians of New Zealand residents are allowed to enter, as are Australians who normally live in New Zealand.
Other exceptions relate to work. Essential health workers are allowed in, as are some other essential workers given government permission.
Samoan and Tongan citizens engaged in essential travel are also about to apply to be an exception to the ban.
Are air crew and horse grooms our weakest link?
As long as some precautions have been taken overseas, New Zealand-based air crew are exempt from quarantine, as are grooms travelling with live horses.
While some sports have been suspended. racing of horses was permitted under Level 3 rules. This week the Minister for Racing, Winston Peters, announced a $72.5m dollar support package for the industry, saying “we are going to make racing great again”.
Advice on the Ministry of Health website suggests the risk of air crew, a grouping for which they unusually include grooms travelling with live horses, of being infected is lower than other travellers. It is advised that PPE is worn during flights.
“The level of risk posed by arriving aircrew is different to other travellers who have been resident in a foreign country, or those who have travelled for business or recreational purposes. The risk also differs for foreign-based aircrew overnighting in New Zealand, compared with New Zealand-based aircrew returning from international duties.”
The precautions which need to have been taken to meet the quarantine exemption differ based on the location and prevalence of community spread of Covid-19.
In low risk countries, no precautions need to be taken.
In medium risk countries, masks and gloves are needed in airport terminals and during transit to hotels. Only essential trips to supermarkets and pharmacies are permitted and these can not be done using public transport or taxis. Anywhere on these outings a mask should be worn if two-metres of distancing can’t be maintained.
In high-risk countries, crew must remain in hotels and self-isolate away from other air crew and hotel guests.
Provided these rules have been followed, air crew can travel home from the airport and live life as normal under the existing alert level. Others in their bubble have no additional controls.
In mid-April it was reported 30 Air NZ staff had contracted the virus since the outbreak began. Not all were air crew.
An Air NZ crew member at a Bluff wedding later tested positive. The cluster based around this event is New Zealand’s largest, at 98. The crew member had no symptoms during the wedding and said he had “adhered to the Ministry of Health’s guidance, which includes hygiene and PPE measures”.
The rule breakers and prison risk
On Monday, it was revealed one New Zealander who returned from the United States on Anzac Day refused a medical examination.
She was held in Auckland Women’s Prison for 10 days charged with failing to comply with a direction from a person authorised by a medical officer of health under Section 70 of the Health Act.
Eventually, she agreed to a test and received bail. She was released before the positive test result was known.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said she travelled by private vehicle from Auckland to the MidCentral DHB area and is now in self-isolation at a private residence.
“We are confident there is no wider public health risk.”
The threat of an outbreak in a prison, where double-bunking means physical distancing is impossible, has been a cause for concern.
The housing of the woman has caused disruption for the prison, with inmates and staff put at risk.
The Department of Corrections tested four prisoners who used the same facilities as the infected woman and said all had a negative result, but are being managed “separately” for 14 days.
Six staff in contact with the woman have also tested negative. All wore PPE when interacting with her. All six are self isolating at home for 14 days.
Voluntary tests were offered to staff. Results of 33 of the 46 tests are negative. The remainder of the tested staff are not at work while they wait for results.