New Covid cases: No need for alert level shift - Bloomfield

Papatoetoe High school in Auckland. Photo: NZ Herald
Papatoetoe High school in Auckland. Photo: NZ Herald
Two siblings of the schoolgirl who tested positive in Auckland yesterday were last night also confirmed as Covid-19 cases.

One is a recent school-leaver who works at Kmart Botany, which is now a location of interest. Thirty-one staff are considered close contacts and need to isolate and get tested.

Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said he was not worried about the new cases emerging yesterday as they were in the same family.

He told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking genome sequencing overnight had shown the same strain of virus as the first pupil who tested positive for Covid-19 at Papatoetoe High School.

"Our genome sequencing results in from overnight show a very direct link back to cases A and B, so that first student in the school, so that's reassuring that we're not dealing with a different potential line of transmission here."

There was no reason to raise alert levels in Auckland, he said.

Bloomfield said good testing and isolation were the keys to get through this latest outbreak.

He said authorities were not taking any chances with this latest set of cases, putting the family into quarantine, and being "very precautionary", with health alerts issued to affected Kmart and a vape customers.

It was being treated similarly to this year's earlier outbreak involving a Northland woman who had left the Pullman. That had been contained, preventing a large-scale outbreak.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield. Photo: ODT files
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield. Photo: Files
Bloomfield did not think the family at the latest case were deliberately trying to evade authorities but nonetheless it was "frustrating" contact tracers hadn't been able to speak to the family and ensure they were tested for ten days.

Anyone who was at Kmart Botany last Friday (February 19) and Saturday (February 20), between 3.30pm and 10.30pm, is considered a "casual plus" contact and must stay home and get tested today.

And every one of the 1500 pupils and 150 staff at Papatoetoe High School is being told to isolate and get re-tested despite the initial case not attending school yesterday.

Anyone who lives with a pupil or teacher must isolate until their family member tests negative.

The third positive case in that household is an infant and was not taken to any early childhood care.

It is understood officials were last night working to establish whether the cluster was still considered contained. Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins will hold a press conference at 1pm.

Earlier, Hipkins said even if yesterday's case was uncovered before Cabinet's alert level decision on Monday, it would not have been enough to prevent a move to level 1 because at that point the perimeter of the outbreak was still considered well contained.

Some experts believe the situation is low risk but warn it is possible the current cluster could keep bubbling away for days, or even weeks, given the virus' long incubation period.

University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker said it was always worrying when there were cases in the community - and the next few days were critical in deciding what to do next.

"This [latest case] was someone they were intending to check out anyway, and they just missed them," he said. "It shows the system is working - and how hard it is to track down every last contact, when you have over 1000 of them.

"The information you really want to know is amongst those contacts whether any of them test positive. If those in their immediate work environment don't test positive that's generally quite good news. It doesn't mean you're in the clear but that would be a good sign," he said.

The Papatoetoe High School pupil tested positive for Covid yesterday morning after developing muscle aches and a loss of smell.

It was the first time the schoolgirl had been tested despite a "get tested" order more than a week after her fellow pupil was confirmed as a case among the Valentine's Day cluster.

There were numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact the student and her family since last Monday.

Household contacts of students and staff were not asked to isolate last week so the five other people in the family of the latest case were free to go about their normal lives.

Bloomfield said there were 10 other outstanding "casual plus" contacts at the high school who posed a risk and were being followed up.

Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ
Contact tracers were sometimes making more than a dozen phone calls, texts and emails, checking with GPs to double-check contact details and had to employ interpreters where there were language barriers, he said.

Teams would now be deployed to knock on doors of those who hadn't yet been tested.

"It's not for anyone to pass judgement on what other people are doing," Bloomfield said when asked why the student hadn't been tested already.

There had been high levels of support and co-operation and the fact the student didn't go back to school and got a test showed there was a level of understanding, he said.

To avoid a witch hunt on social media, Hipkins asked New Zealanders to "demonstrate a little bit of kindness" while the case investigation was ongoing.

"The last thing we want is people reluctant to come forward and be tested or come forward with the information we need for the case investigations because they don't want to subject themselves to [the social media reaction]."

Yesterday's initial case, a Papatoetoe High School student known as Case I, has not been at school. They are a casual plus contact of the initial Papatoetoe High School case and had been advised to self-isolate and get tested.

The teenage sibling, known as Case J, recently finished school and has been working at Kmart Botany, the Ministry of Health said.

Case J was at work last Friday and Saturday between 4pm and 10pm. Kmart Botany is regarded as a location of interest.

"Therefore anyone who was at Kmart Botany, 500 Ti Rakau Drive, Botany Downs, at these times is considered a casual plus contact.

"If you are a casual plus contact, you are advised to immediately isolate at home and call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 for advice on isolation timeframes and testing requirements.

"Thirty-one staff at Kmart have already been identified as close contacts and are isolating and being provided with public health advice."

In a statement, Kmart said: "... the health and safety of our team and customers is our highest priority and we can confirm that we were alerted this afternoon of a team member who has returned a positive result for Covid-19 at the Kmart Botany store.

"As soon as we were made aware, we immediately closed the store as a safety precaution and commenced a thorough sanitisation of the store.

"We have also asked all contacts of this team member to isolate. We are working closely with the New Zealand Department of Health and will continue to take every safety precaution.

"The team member last worked from 4pm to 10pm on February 19 and 20."

Dark Vapes in East Tamaki has also been added to the ministry's locations of interest for the newest case.

People who visited Dark Vapes in East Tamaki on Friday (February 19) between 2.30pm and 4pm and Saturday (February 20) between 7pm and 8.30pm are being considered as casual plus contacts and should stay home and get a test.

Dark Vapes owner Rakibul Howlader said he was the only person in his Springs Road store at the time the infected customer visited both times so was currently isolating.

"I was serving the customer so I have to go into isolation ... it is a bit of a shock but it has been five days already and I'm fine and I haven't got any symptoms or anything."

He had only learnt that his East Tamaki store was a location of interest yesterday afternoon, but would be organising a thorough clean, he said.

Those who visited either Kmart Botany or Dark Vapes on February 19 should get a test on Wednesday and those who visited on February 20 should wait until Thursday, according to updated information on the MoH website.

Other locations of interest for the three cases are being investigated and will be notified when available.

The ministry said the infant, known as Case K, did not have childcare outside the home.

A testing centre was set up at Papatoetoe High School early Tuesday afternoon and 672 tests were done. Testing will be available again at the school today.

The school community has been requested to get tested if they had not done so on Tuesday.

The ministry says everyone in a Papatoetoe High School household must stay away from work or any other school, educational facility or community setting (eg the supermarket or any other place outside the home).

The school remains closed and no students or staff will be able to return until advised by a Medical Officer of Health.

At this point, household members who are not students or staff do not need to be retested, unless they have symptoms or are asked to do so.

"We will be providing updates on contact tracing tomorrow. Whole genome sequencing of Case I will be available tomorrow [Wednesday]," the ministry said.

Kmart's Botany store was closed around 5.30pm on Tuesday for deep cleaning.


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