Coronavirus: 'No doubt' there will be deaths if it gets loose in NZ

If COVID-19 starts transmitting from person-to-person in the community, there's "no doubt" people will die, according to Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.

That's why it's so important to prevent the deadly coronavirus getting loose.

"Certainly if we get a community outbreak here, we will get deaths. There's no doubt about that," he told The AM Show on Monday.

"You can see in Australia where they've had only a relatively low number of cases, they've already had their first deaths - so we should expect that. We get deaths from influenza and from many other things each year."

As of Monday morning there had been 2990 confirmed deaths worldwide, including Australia's first - a 78-year-old who was on board the ill-fated Diamond Princess cruise ship. 

New Zealand's only confirmed case is a 60-year-old citizen who flew in from Iran earlier this week. They're currently in a stable but improving condition at Auckland City Hospital, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

"The whole pandemic plan is focused around preventing community outbreaks," she told The AM Show. "That's why we undertake the tracking and the self-isolation of people who have direct contact with someone who has a case. 

"You'll see in Australia they've been very successful because they have similar measures that we do in managing any wider community outbreak."

While Australia has had a number of cases of coronavirus in people who have arrived in the country - such as the Diamond Princess passenger - there has been no spread in the community. 

Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: The AM Show

NZ doing what it can to avoid another South Korea or Iran

Ardern knocked back suggestions it was inevitable the virus would eventually get loose here, like it has in Iran, South Korea and Italy. 

"What's most important for me to convey at the moment is that we have the plans in place and the processes in place to try and prevent that."

She said South Korea's outbreak was caused by people not following instructions - refusing to disclose their symptoms, where they had been and who they'd been in contact with, for example. 

"That is not the behaviour that we know and see in New Zealand. In fact, those who have been in self-isolation - I've had it reported to me from Healthline - that there are some people who are over-complying, who are staying in self-isolation longer than they need to such is their concern for the people around them. That's the New Zealand way." 

One Kiwi who returned from Italy last week has put herself in self-isolation, despite not showing any symptoms. Lagi Paul, 20, said she was waved through Customs and told there was nothing to worry about, despite having been out and about on public transport in the epicentre of Italy's outbreak, Milan. She asked for a test, but was denied because she hadn't been to mainland China or Iran - the only two countries we've currently got travel restrictions on. 

"They said, 'You do not fit the criteria, and you don't need to self-isolate either,' which I found ridiculous because I was in the hotspot there, you know? The fact they told me not to even self-isolate, it was a bit crazy."

Ardern said she will be discussing the possibility of putting travel restrictions on not entire countries, but hotspots like Milan, with health officials today. Italy has had more confirmed cases than Iran, but Ardern says it's likely Iran has underreported the spread of the outbreak, and there are concerns about the ability of its health system to handle it. 

"If you've been in one of those areas where there has been coronavirus, you've travelled back to New Zealand and you've been unwell, it's imperative to ring Healthline and get advice," added Bloomfield. "That's how we're going to stay on top of this."

Ashley Bloomfield.
Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: The AM Show

Get the flu jab, even though it won't stop the virus - Bloomfield

Bloomfield urged Kiwis to get the flu jab this year, not because it would stop the coronavirus - it won't - but to ease the pressure on the health system should there be an outbreak.

"One of the challenges will be if we get its arrival and a growth in cases here at the same time as we get the flu season over winter, that will really put pressure on our health system. 

"One of the key things people can do of course is get a flu injection. It's cheap, it's incredibly effective and Pharmac has ordered several hundred thousand extra doses so that we have got the ability to vaccinate more people this winter."

Several labs are working on vaccines for COVID-19, but it's unlikely one will be ready for a year or so.

"There's work underway on both fronts in a number of centres around the world, and that's fantastic," said Bloomfield. 

"The best minds on the globe will be turning towards this. What we have seen in the past is the effectiveness of drugs to cure people who have it is pretty limited. Most of the treatment is around treating the symptoms that people get."

Emirates flight passengers in 'supervised self-isolation'

Fifteen passengers who were on board the Emirates flight which brought COVID-19 to New Zealand have gone into "supervised self-isolation", having been seated within two rows of the infected patient. It was previously believed there were 18, but it turns out one family moved seats. 

So far, none of the 15 have shown any symptoms.

"Just to reiterate, these people are not at high-risk - they're just at some risk, and so that's why we follow them up - just to ensure if they do develop symptoms, they're not then spreading it widely in the community," said Bloomfield.