Well prepared in the South and three tested

The South is well prepared should the new coronavirus reach New Zealand, the region’s leading public health physicians say.

So far the potentially lethal disease has affected more than 20,000 people, mainly in China, and caused 425 deaths.

The disease has spread from China to several other countries, including Australia.

Director-general of Health Ashley Bloomfield yesterday said there were no cases or suspected cases of the disease in New Zealand; samples from three patients were being tested, but were not expected to be positive for the new coronavirus.

Reviewing coronavirus preparations are (from left) WellSouth medical director Stephen Graham, SDHB medical officer of health Anura Jayasinghe and SDHB chief medical officer Nigel Millar. Photo: Linda Robertson
Reviewing coronavirus preparations are (from left) WellSouth medical director Stephen Graham, SDHB medical officer of health Anura Jayasinghe and SDHB chief medical officer Nigel Millar. Photo: Linda Robertson
Southern District Health Board medical officer of health Anura Jayasinghe said public health messages about hand hygiene and cough and sneeze etiquette — two key disease spread prevention tools — had been widely distributed through the region.

‘‘We think people know what they need to do to keep themselves safe, and about following general hygiene and other precautions,’’ Dr Jayasinghe said.

‘‘Most of the basic practices are similar to influenza prevention.’’

Southern physicians were consulting daily about the disease outbreak and receiving regular updates from the Ministry of Health.

‘‘If we get a case, we have clear information and good channels to communicate with the public.’’

General practitioners will be at the front line of attempts to prevent or contain coronavirus, and WellSouth medical director Stephen Graham said doctors were well prepared for any eventualities.

‘‘Seeing people with flu-like symptoms is routine in general practice, and in this case definition is important; people will need to tell GPs if they have been in China in the past 14 days, which is critical information if you are going to treat them as a potential case.’’

Concerned patients should first set out their recent travel and medical history on the phone, providing information which might allow doctors to eliminate coronavirus as a cause of their symptoms, Dr Graham said.

‘‘I think the information available to GPs is good, consistent and easy to access ... the recent measles outbreak made us very aware of that.’’

SDHB chief medical officer Nigel Millar said the World Health Organisation rated the rest of the world as having a high chance of recording cases of what was still a primarily Chinese disease, so it was right for New Zealand to be keeping a close watch for coronavirus.

‘‘It is about alertness right now and a time for us to prepare,’’ Dr Millar said.

‘‘We have reinvigorated the plans we had around H1N1, and have concentrated on supporting primary care and making sure they feel they have the right resources, but the hospitals are ready.’’

Emergency departments recently rehearsed for an ebola outbreak, so staff had up-to-date training in handling infectious disease cases.

‘‘The ED has a plan to segregate people and limit the risk of cross-infection occurring at hospital ... although it is hard to work out how big a risk that is because the information from China is not clear on that.’’

Details of coronavirus dangers were still emerging, so it was timely to consider good public health practice.

‘‘In New Zealand in an average year about 500 people die of influenza, ... a reminder viruses are not unknown.’’

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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