Coronavirus: More contact tracing capability key to stamping out COVID-19 spread - infectious disease doctor

A doctor of infectious diseases from Otago University is calling on the Government to urgently up its contact tracing capacity, otherwise the nationwide lockdown will be in vain, they say.

So far, 102 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in New Zealand. Of those, two are believed to have been caused by community transmission.  

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that as of 11:59pm on Wednesday the country would be at alert level 4, meaning all non-essential businesses must close and Kiwis have to go into self-isolation. 

The country will remain in lockdown for at least four weeks, Ardern said.

Epidemiologist Dr Ayesha Verrall says the lockdown is a "massive sacrifice" for the country and will only be worth it if COVID-19 is eliminated from our shores.

If that is to happen though, she says, contact tracing is crucial.

"We should aim to leave the lockdown in one month with the ability to identify and trace the contacts of 1,000 cases a day," Dr Verrall said. "We are currently struggling with 50."

In order to stamp out the spread of COVID-19, Dr Verral says testing for the virus needs to be accessible and have a fast turn-around time. There also needs to be rapid contact tracing that is linked to smartphone apps, along with welfare support for those who struggle in isolation, she says. 

"All these processes need to be fast, scaled up and integrated. China and South Korea have succeeded in this strategy of turning around large outbreaks, because they have strong public health infrastructure, following the lessons they learnt from the SARS outbreak," said Dr Verrall.

"If we had better ability to find cases and isolate their contacts we would be able to manage larger number of cases without going into lockdown. That is how Singapore managed more than 500 cases without closing their schools.

"Building this capacity means we could look to the next 18 months with more confidence that we won’t have large outbreaks or be in perpetual lockdown."

Worldwide, there have been more than 360,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The death toll stands at more than 15,400.