Coronavirus: Dr Ashley Bloomfield has 'no criticism for staff' treating first COVID-19 victim

Staff treating New Zealand's first COVID-19 victim did everything right, says the director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. 

Dr Bloomfield announced on Sunday the country had recorded its first coronavirus-related death, after a woman in her 70s passed away at Grey Base Hospital, in Greymouth.

The woman - named on Monday as Anne Guenole - had initially been diagnosed as suffering from influenza when she was admitted to hospital on Wednesday, with staff treating her as such and using personal protective equipment (PPE) suitable for an influenza patient but not a COVID-19 patient.

However, on Saturday Guenole tested positive for COVID-19. Twenty-one staff members from the hospital are now self-isolating as a precautionary measure.

Despite the apparent misdiagnosis, Dr Bloomfield says staff at the hospital followed all the correct procedures. 

"When the person came in they had classic symptoms of influenza and a pre-existing condition and COVID-19 wasn't part of the differential diagnosis at that point," Dr Bloomfield told The AM Show on Monday. 

"They took appropriate precautions for what they thought the diagnosis was at the time and subsequently when they saw the clinical picture they obviously did the COVID-19 test and then immediately did take appropriate precautions," he said.

"I don't have any criticism for the staff there," Dr Bloomfield added. "They took the precautions that were appropriate at the time and then of course after that managed with the full PPE."

It was not yet known whether the staff in question mixed with others in between treating the patient and going into self-isolation, he said. 

"None of those staff members are symptomatic but they are treated as if they are close contacts of course therefore they're in strict self-isolation and any family members of other contacts, whether they're close or casual, would be identified, and any close contacts would also be in self-isolation."

"A lot of blanks"

Guenole's family say they have no idea how she became infected with the virus.

"There's a lot of blanks we're trying to fill in right now... a lot of old-school people, they don't let you know when they're unwell, she... kept her aches and pains to herself," a relative, who wished to remain anonymous, said in an interview with Stuff

Dr Bloomfield said the woman suffered pre-existing conditions, which contributed to her death. 

"We do see this with other infections in older people or people with pre-existing conditions, if they get influenza or another infection that can be the difference for them. Obviously we're very sad about this death and we're doing our very best as a country to avoid as many deaths as possible."

New Zealand currently has 514 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19, with that number expected to rise in the coming weeks. 

In a bid to stem the spread of the virus - which has now been confirmed to be spreading through community transmission - the country was last week raised to alert level 4.

All non-essential businesses have been closed and Kiwis have been placed in lockdown, allowed to leave the house only exercise or visit the supermarket.

The lockdown is set to last at least four weeks.

"At least 10 days" to know impact of lockdown

Dr Bloomfield said it is still too early to judge how great an effect the lockdown and social distancing are having on halting the virus.

"It simply is too early [to tell] at the moment. We would expect numbers to keep increasing for at least seven to 10 days, so we'll be watching really closely, he said.

"And if we are being successful that will be because all New Zealanders are doing what's expected and being asked of them - and that is to help break that chain of transmission. But it will be at least 10 days. The numbers will fluctuate day to day - they may well be quite a bit higher today - it depends just when the tests were done and processed as well as on the spread that is already there."

"We've certainly got the staffing there"

With numbers expected to rise, Dr Bloomfield said he was confident that hospitals around the country had the staff required to cope with more cases.

Due to elective surgery being placed on hold and most outpatient appointments being done remotely, hospital occupancy rate was down to around 50-60 percent, said Dr Bloomfield.

"One of the reasons for that is to free up capacity, but also to allow staff time to be trained if they need to be used, for example, to help look after ventilated patients if we get to that situation. So we've got the capacity in the hospitals, we've certainly got the staffing there, so we're getting really well prepared."

Globally there have been more than 685,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 32,000 losing their lives to the virus.