Wellington's Victoria University has warned students it has "unofficially" been informed a staff member has tested positive for coronavirus COVID-19.
In a message sent to all students and staff, vice-chancellor Professor Grant Guilford said the university was "unofficially" told on Monday that a staff member had contracted the respiratory illness, which has swept the globe and led to New Zealand going into lockdown. He doesn't explain what he means by "unofficially".
"The staff member has been self-isolating at home since beginning to feel unwell, is doing well, and is being supported by the university. The staff member contracted the virus off-campus," Prof Guilford said in the message.
The staff member is said to work in a small administrative office, which Prof Guildford said was "immediately closed" after the university was notified of the illness.
"Some staff in the office are considered 'close contacts' and are now all working from home. We expect regional health authorities will be checking in with these staff. As yet there is no evidence of further positive tests amongst these close contacts," he said.
The staff member did have brief interactions with a small number of other staff and students, so these people are being treated as "casual contacts", meaning no restrictions have been placed on their movement as the chance of transmission to them is very low. They will, however, be contacted by the university to check on their wellbeing and be required to self-isolate and contact Heathline if they develop symptoms.
Prof Guilford finished the message by acknowledging the concern a positive test will create. He suggests anyone feeling anxious or distressed should contact the university's counselling service.
The message came as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that New Zealand, which has 102 confirmed cases of the virus, would increase to alert level 3 immediately, and then to alert level 4 on Wednesday night. This means that from Wednesday, all education institutes, including universities, must close as the country goes into lockdown. People are instructed to stay at home and not interact with anyone they are not self-isolating with.
Ardern said these strict measures, which will last for at least four weeks, are necessary to ensure the virus does not get hold of the country. She said otherwise thousands of New Zealanders will die.
In a separate statement, Prof Guilford said the two-day period between the announcement and the lockdown taking effect provided a window to allow preparations to be made.
He said from Monday all teaching would stop until online classes begin on April 28, with all examinations this trimester replaced by online assessments. Consequently, teaching would be extended by three weeks at the end of the trimester.
All students in halls of residence have been asked to return home as soon as possible, with the halls closing on Wednesday at 1:30pm. Those who cannot get home will be provided accommodation at Weir House.
"The weeks ahead are going to be challenging but there is absolutely nothing that we will not be able to find our way through if we work together. Please take care not just of yourself but also your family and friends," Prof Guilford said.
The university has been contacted for comment on what "unofficially" means.
What we know about coronavirus
The World Health Organization (WHO) was first notified of cases of the virus SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) in Wuhan, China on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread via human-to-human transmission. It causes the coronavirus COVID-19 illness.
The virus 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. The length of time the virus stays alive on surfaces isn't fully understood, but some viruses can remain active for days.
"Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death," the WHO says.
"Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing."
There is currently no vaccine for the sickness.
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.
An explainer on protecting yourself from coronavirus can be found here. Full information can also be found at Covid19.govt.nz
The Ministry of Health is reminding the public to get in touch with Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if they have symptoms or concerns.