An investigation into the Crowne Plaza MIQ facility has led to changes to public walkways and additional testing requirements, writes political editor Jo Moir

The country is in day eight of lockdown as locations of interest continue to grow for the Auckland outbreak.

There are now 198 positive cases in Auckland and a further 12 in Wellington, making a total of 210.

The Crowne Plaza managed isolation facility is at the root of the investigation for how Delta got into the community after a Sydney returnee arrived there on a ‘red-zone flight’ on August 7.

Health officials believe he may have passed Delta on to a member of the public using a nearby walkway when he was checking in at the hotel late on the evening of August 7.

Newsroom first raised concerns about a public walkway at the facility more than a month ago.

After testing positive for Covid, the Sydney returnee was transported to Jet Park’s quarantine facility on August 9.

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One of the working theories is that one of the six people using that public walkway in the atrium of the Crowne Plaza contracted the virus and spread it into the community.

As of Wednesday morning, only three of the tests had been returned, all negative.

But that’s not the only public walkway in the Crowne Plaza – a second one operates alongside the exercise area used by those in managed isolation.

A second public walkway next to the Crowne Plaza exercise area. Photo: Matthew Scott

At some point between August 7-9 the Sydney returnee transmitted Delta to a family in a room adjacent when a door was opened.

That family had access to the exercise area as they had returned an initial negative day three test, and used it once after they had already been exposed to Delta by the Sydney returnee.

An MIQ spokesperson has told Newsroom the family went for one walk on August 12 for 16 minutes between 12.28pm and 12.44pm.

“They were on their own, no other returnees were in the area at the time.’’

Newsroom asked the Ministry of Health whether anyone had used the public walkway alongside the exercise area at the time the family was out there.

A spokesperson said: “A health investigation into how the family staying at the Crowne Plaza became infected is currently underway, which will include examining CCTV footage from the hotel.’’

It remains unclear how many, if any, people were using the public walkway at the time the family was in the exercise area.

Neither the Director General of Health nor the Covid Response Minister, Chris Hipkins, had that information at the 1pm press conference on Wednesday.

Covid testing in managed isolation has now increased with an additional day six test being introduced.

Doctor Ashley Bloomfield said it was something health officials had been considering for some time but the transmission within the Crowne Plaza does highlight the gap in finding positive cases when testing is only done on day three and then again on day 12.

“It’s just another slice of cheese in our line of Swiss cheese slices,” he told Newsroom. 

The Joint Head of MIQ, Rose King, has confirmed to Newsroom that “no other MIQ facilities around New Zealand have public walkways/thoroughfares in the same manner as the Crowne Plaza in Auckland.’’

The Director-General of Health, Doctor Ashley Bloomfield, has also told Newsroom a review of all the facilities, including whether they’re fit in the new Delta environment, is underway.

“Anywhere the air can go, the virus can go’’ – Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker

The public walkway in the atrium of the Crowne Plaza near the lobby where the Sydney returnee could have passed on the virus has the added complication of a nearby vaccination centre.

The queue for the centre is just 15m from the Perspex wall used to protect the public from the MIQ facility, but has small windows in it, which are opened for parcels to be delivered through.

It also wasn’t completely enclosed, with a small gap between the top of the barrier and the ceiling.

Hipkins said on Wednesday that the gap was being fixed and the work would be completed before any new returnees entered the Crowne Plaza – everyone was moved out of the facility in light of it being under investigation.

Asked if he thought this proved the perspex was a risk, Hipkins said no issues had been raised in infection and control audits of the Crowne Plaza.

The last audit was carried out there in June.

The other walkway – near the exercise area – has a 2m Perspex barrier but doesn’t have a lid on it, which means the airspace used by the public is the same airspace shared with the exercise area.

According to Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker, “anywhere the air can go, the virus can go’’.

Hipkins says it’s an outside area and hasn’t been assessed as a risk in any audits.

Regarding people waiting in the Crowne Plaza atrium to be vaccinated, Bloomfield told Newsroom on Tuesday he trusts the health experts at the vaccination centre to have checked it was a safe environment for people to get their jabs.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newsroom the vaccination centre was converted to one being used by the community in mid-April.

Prior to that it was for border workers and MIQ staff in the central city.

“The site was closed in early April for a deep clean and risk assessment before reopening as a community site. Part of the work undertaken was ensuring there was clear separation between the nearby MIQ facility at Crowne Plaza and the vaccination centre itself, including completely separate entry points,’’ the spokesperson said.

“As with all community vaccination centres, there are measures in place to ensure the health and safety of everyone visiting the site. Since the move to Alert Level 4, additional PPE is being worn by all centre staff, as it is across all our sites.’’

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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