Coronavirus: Infectious disease specialist backs Govt's handling of COVID-19 pandemic

In the era of social media, it can seem like everyone in New Zealand has an opinion on whether or not we've acted fast enough to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Economist Gareth Morgan, toy entrepreneur Nick Mowbray, National Party health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse and broadcaster Mike Hosking have all stuck the boot in, saying the Government's reaction has been too little, too late. 

But none of them are infectious disease specialists. The University of Otago's David Murdoch is, and he reckons we've acted faster than most countries to stop the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 33,000 people worldwide. 

"I think we're ahead of other countries," he told The AM Show on Monday.

"There's a lot of benchmarking, looking at what other countries are doing and where we're placed. I think we acted earlier than other countries, and that gives us every chance. So yes, I think we're doing the right thing given where we are, and we just need to keep doing it."

As an isolated country with no land borders, New Zealand had time to see how other countries reacted to the virus' spread, seeing what works and what doesn't. For example, Italian regions which implemented social distancing measures and shut non-essential businesses right away fared much better than those who didn't

David Murdoch.
David Murdoch. Photo credit: The AM Show

Our lockdown is set down for four weeks, but it's widely expected to last longer, with the Government's own wage subsidy scheme set for an initial 12 weeks.

"I would say there's a high chance it's going to be longer than four," said Dr Murdoch. "We're in this for the long run really. It's a bit hard. We really need to see what happens to the curve over the next few weeks." 

The first New Zealand death from COVID-19 was reported on Sunday, Anne Guenole - a woman in her 70s with pre-existing medical conditions, both risk factors for the disease. 

Dr Murdoch says the odds are she won't be the last. The exact mortality rate for COVID-19 isn't known, with estimates ranging from 1 percent up to 3.4 percent. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions make up the vast majority of fatalities.

"It's important to remember that occasionally a young person may have severe disease as well," said Dr Murdoch. 

Some reports have found the young are just as susceptible to catching the virus, and may be mostly responsible for spreading it, as they can often have zero or only very mild symptoms.

"Of course the question we have about how many people have very little or no symptoms, that's something we don't really have a great understanding of at the moment. But what we do know is it's quite a range. 

"Certainly some people have pretty mild symptoms... it doesn't tend to present with just the symptoms of a common cold, but having said that there's a bit of overlap."

The number of confirmed new cases announced on Sunday - 63 - was down on the previous two days. Dr Murdoch echoed Prime Minister Jacinda's comments that this can't yet be considered a trend. 

"Too early to say. We'll see some day-to-day fluctuations - I think we need to see a better trend before we'd be comfortable saying that." 

Since New Zealand shut the borders to foreigners, the number of arrivals each day has shrunk from thousands to just a few hundred. Most new confirmed COVID-19 cases have been linked to overseas travel, but if the virus is allowed to spread through the community, Dr Murdoch says he won't be surprised to see the total rise into the thousands soon. 

"We know that the majority of cases are mild and moderate and don't end up in hospital, but a small but significant proportion are ill enough to be admitted to hospital. Some of those will end up in the intensive care unit, and some of them will die. It's unfortunate, but this is not unexpected."

Slowing the spread - or 'flattening the curve' as it's become known - will prevent hospitals being overloaded with too many patients at once. If this happens, not only will more COVID-19 patients die, but others who can no longer access the level of care they need. 

As the virus needs new hosts to survive, cutting physical contact with others should kill it off - but only if people follow the rules. 

"I have seen, as you will have, reports of New Zealanders not following the rules of the lockdown,"Ardern said on Sunday. "This group we can all rightly feel very frustrated with."

Ardern and health officials will give the latest update on New Zealand's response at 1pm on Monday.