Havelock North gets apology over gastro outbreak

Mayor Lawrence Yule
Mayor Lawrence Yule

It'll be left up to individual schools in Havelock North to decide whether they want to close or stay open while the town battles a gastro outbreak.

Hundreds have fallen sick since Wednesday last week, with the council confirming something wasn't right with the water on Friday afternoon.

There are currently 21 patients in Hawke's Bay Hospital, two of whom are in a critical condition in intensive care. Yesterday alone saw 183 people turn up at their GPs showing signs of campylobacter infection.

Officials are pleading for locals to think twice before calling an ambulance as the region struggles with a violent gastro outbreak.

Doctors face an influx of vomiting patients, with hundreds affected since the Havelock North water supply was contaminated with E. coli last week.

St John territory manager Brendon Hutchinson says there are dozens of gastro-related emergency calls every day.

"For anyone who is acutely unwell and they consider it serious, they can call 111. But we'd encourage all people to see their GPs first," says Mr Hutchinson.

"We've been able to pull ambulances from other districts to help us with staffing. Some of our staff have been affected, who live in the Havelock area, but we've had enough staff we've been able to call in so that we're fully resourced."

No other bugs have shown up in tests so far. Any campylobacter in the water supply will be killed by chlorination, but a boil notice remains in place in case other, more resistant bacteria has found its way into the supply.

Hundreds of kids have been absent from school today - some sick, others kept home by anxious parents. The Ministry of Education told Newshub it doesn't have the power to close every school in the town unless there was a civil emergency.

The Mayor of Hastings has apologised for taking seven-and-a-half hours to tell the public there could be a problem with the water in the city's satellite town of Havelock North.

Hundreds have fallen sick since Wednesday last week, with bacteria campylobacter the prime suspect.

The town's water tested fine on Tuesday, but a test taken on Thursday showed the possibility of contamination.

"At 10 o'clock on Friday morning we got an indicator test which said something's in the water," Mayor Lawrence Yule told Paul Henry on Monday morning.

But with the "indicator test" often showing false positives, no action was taken to inform the public - despite reports people were already starting to get sick.

"My staff contacted the DHB and lunchtime they met, and they said there is clearly something going on here."

A decision to chlorinate the water supply was made at 3pm, but no public notice to boil water before using it was issued until 5:30pm.

"I think we could have told the public earlier than we did," said Mr Yule.

"This is highly likely to be campylobacter - that is what people are testing for - and if it is, chlorination removes it from the water supply very, very quickly. What the DHB and the Ministry of Health were trying to work out is, could this be something else? And if it is something else, the only way of removing that risk is boiling the water."

A notice went up on the council's website and Facebook page, and releases sent out to the media.

"I apologise to the people of Havelock North," said Mr Yule, who denied the council has been trying to cover up its failings ahead of the upcoming local body elections.

"I lead an organisation that is charged with delivering them safe drinking water - they expect that - and this hasn't happened here."

Te Mata School is missing almost 300 pupils today. Principal Michael Bain says at least half of those won't be sick, but with many staff hit by the bug, it's just as well or they might have to close up completely.

"We're about eight or nine staff down, and five teacher aides - but with the numbers of kids, we're balancing out. Some classes only have five kids in them."

They're doing their best to make sure the kids who are at school make it through the day.

"We've issued hand sanitiser in every room, we've doubled our efforts around cleanliness in toilets and cloak bays and door handles, [told pupils to] drink bottled water... if you're unwell, come to the sick bay and let's get you home."

Parents Newshub spoke to were keen to keep their kids learning.

Arlo's dad said his boy "likes school too much" to miss it, and has managed to avoid getting sick so far - unlike his brothers.

Another parent said the school had done a "fantastic amount of communication over the weekend", and wouldn't keep her kids at home unless they were sick.

Mum Heidi Beach said the council's handling of the outbreak was "a shambles". She was dropping off daughter Carly, with the rest of her family stuck at home.

"My husband's sick and my son has had diarrhoea all weekend... We made the judgement she's probably as safe at school as she is at home."

She's not worried Carly might catch the bug from one of her friends.

"I trusted the school to make the right decision - they've probably got a better understanding than us."

Mr Yule says they'll know by Wednesday if it is indeed campylobacter. If it is, it should be killed by the chlorine and the outbreak should soon be over. But with an incubation period of up to a week, it's going to be a rough few days for the area's doctors.

"My suspicion is we've still got a couple of days to go."

Totara Health told Newshub nearly two-thirds of all their patients this morning had gastro, and they were run off their feet trying to look after them all.

It's still not obvious how the water supply got infected, and Mr Yule says there will be a full review to figure it out.