Despite Government assurances that contact tracing was near foolproof, the Omicron outbreak quickly highlights gaps in the system

The first signs of contact tracers being unable to keep up with the weight of new positive cases of Covid in the community have emerged.

Two cases in the Omicron outbreak got tests and received positive test results without having heard from the contact tracing team.

The cases were an Air NZ worker from the Auckland to Nelson flight and a kitchen worker at Summerset retirement village in Flatbush, where a positive case amongst staff has now led to a mini-lockdown for residents.

Contact tracers are tasked with identifying the potential contacts of a positive case and contacting them to provide advice on testing and self-isolation.

If people don’t sign in or leave contact details when they visit what become locations of interest, the tracing job can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

On Newsroom last week, University of Otago epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig warned: “We can expect contact tracing to fall over fairly quickly.”

And indeed on Monday, the Ministry of Health reported that the contact tracing team was having a busy day tracking down anybody who may have come within spitting distance of a suspected case of Omicron.

However, a Ministry of Health spokesperson said the cases were not the existing close contacts of other cases, meaning they were not known about until they tested positive.

Yet both were listed as having come in contact with the Nelson-Tasman family. Both cases were documented as having been in locations of interest, one on the same flight and the other at the same wedding.

The lapses run counter to the Government’s assurances towards the end of last year that contact tracing could handle the summer surge, with a Ministry of Health spokesperson saying the system could handle 1000 new daily cases or 6000 contacts each day.

Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has not conceded any doubts about the system. “I’m confident in our contact tracing capacity, acknowledging again that the way we’re using it has shifted to be very much focused on those very close and close contacts,” he told Newsroom in November.

The problem is an event like a wedding or several hours cooped up in the tight confines of an aircraft cabin with limited ventilation can produce many very close contacts.

A spokesperson for Air NZ reported an air crew employee took a test after developing symptoms, without communication from contact tracers.

Similarly, the kitchen worker from the Summerset retirement village is reported to have been a guest at the wedding at Totara Event Centre in New Lynn on Saturday January 15 that was attended by family who had flown from the Nelson area.

The first family members who’d attended the wedding had tested positive by Thursday morning. But it wasn’t until late Friday that the worker was told by another attendee at the wedding, and went and got tested of his own accord. Despite working with vulnerable elderly, he wasn’t approached by contact tracers ahead of being advised of the positive result on Saturday.

A spokesperson from the Summerset retirement village said the business acted immediately after hearing of the worker’s positive test result by giving the kitchen a deep clean and completely closing down the village and care centre.

Over 300 Covid tests were then taken across staff, care home and village residents.

As the public health strategy shifts, contact tracing is expected to become less important, with the Minister for Covid Response, Chris Hipkins, even signalling yesterday that at some point down the track, suspected cases won’t even be asked to go out and get a test.

It’s an omen of a new phase of the pandemic for New Zealand, where stopping the spread has been replaced with slowing the spread and trusty tools from the last couple of years like contact tracing and MIQ are replaced with booster shots and self-isolation.

The difference is that the latter hinges much more on personal responsibility – the responsibility to keep your immunity in good shape with the best tools at hand, and the responsibility to keep away from other people if you wake up sneezing and coughing.

The Ministry of Health’s Tuesday statement seems to want to lower expectations around contact tracing’s effectiveness in this new era.

One of the new locations of interest is a well-attended Sunday evening party at Pukekohe Indian Hall.

“Auckland Regional Public Health Service believe a large number of people attended this event,” said the statement from the Ministry of Health. “Anyone at this location at the relevant times is asked to get tested immediately, and self-isolate until a negative result has been returned.”

Tracking down every person who attended the Pukekohe event would be no mean feat if not everybody was scanning in.

But if indications from the Government are to be believed, the days of tracking people down by locations visited as the first line of defence against the virus may be coming to an end.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

Leave a comment