Coronavirus: Tracking down people in contact with infected at airport gates 'virtually impossible' - Director-General

Tracking down people coronavirus-infected individuals may have come in contact with at airport gates is "virtually impossible", according to the Director-General of Health.

New Zealand now has five confirmed cases of COVID-19, with three having recently been overseas. Two are believed to have contracted the illness via a family member who travelled to Iran. One of those with the illness recently returned from northern Italy and made a return trip to Palmerston North once back in the country. 

The Ministry of Health has been identifying and getting in touch with people who are deemed close contacts of those with the virus, meaning people who have been within a metre of the infected person for more than 15 minutes. That also includes those who were within two rows of the person on an plane. Others who may have been on the plane and are worried they have come in contact with the individual can ring Healthline.

But there have also been concerns raised about people sitting or standing next to someone with coronavirus at airports, especially at gates before or after boarding or at security. These people could be alongside each other for more than 15 minutes and aren't necessarily going to be on the same plane.

Infectious disease researcher Michael Osterholm says: "It is standing in the cattle car at the gate where you are all waiting to get on or getting off where many people are congregated right together. Every bit as much a risk as being on the plane itself."

However, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says it would difficult to track all those people down.

"It is virtually impossible to identify who those people might be. Our advice to them is the same as our advice to the general public. We would classify them as casual contacts, it is impossible to tell whether they may be close or casual."

Casual contacts should be aware of the symptoms of the virus. Those who were in the general attendance standing area at the Tool concert on Friday that an infected individual attended are also considered casual contacts.

Dr David Clark, New Zealand's Health Minister, told Newshub on Saturday that public health officials worldwide rely on people being proactive and self-isolating if they feel it is necessary. 

"When people have good information about the likely symptoms... it's really important that you do those things you'd do for the cold or flu anyway - you self-isolate, you concentrate on washing your hands. Talk to your GP, give them a call and make a plan."

According to Airport Technology, Prague's airport in the Czech Republic has begun using separate gates for passengers coming from Italy, where there has been a surge in cases. United Arab Emirates has implemented a similar measure.

At New Zealand gates, incoming passengers are being provided with pamphlets with the latest advice.

Coronavirus is primarily spread through droplets in the air after someone sneezes or coughs. However, it can also be contracted by touching surfaces where the illness is present, according to the World Health Organisation. The length of time the virus stays alive on surfaces is unknown at this stage, but some viruses can remain active for days. 

How can I protect myself? 

  • avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands
  • washing your hands before eating
  • carrying a hand sanitiser at all times
  • being particularly mindful of touching your face after using public transport or going to the airport
  • carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)
  • not eating shared or communal food
  • avoiding shaking hands, kissing cheeks
  • regularly cleaning and sanitise commonly used surfaces and items, such as phones and keys
  • avoiding close contact with people suffering from or showing symptoms of acute respiratory infection
  • seeking medical attention if you feel unwell.

A full explainer on protecting yourself from coronavirus can be found here, while here are eight things you should know about the virus.

The Ministry of Health is reminding the public to get in touch with Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if they have symptoms or concerns.