Health Minister Dr David Clark urges Kiwis to take coronavirus pandemic seriously

Health Minister Dr David Clark says the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic shows it must be taken "seriously" and Kiwis should be vigilant in keeping hygienic.

More than a month after the potentially deadly virus was labelled a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the health body has now declared it a pandemic.

WHO Director-General of Health Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says such a declaration doesn't change how it approaches the virus but reflects the level of concern about its spread and the inaction of some in tackling it. There are now more than 120,000 cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with 4400 people having died from the disease.

Dr Clark told The AM Show New Zealand has considered the virus an unofficial pandemic for a while now, but WHO's move highlights its seriousness. 

"Our Director-General of Health in New Zealand has been saying this is a pandemic in all but name for quite some time. We have been operating off our pandemic plan since early January," Dr Clark said.

"What it does highlight is that people do need to take this seriously."

New Zealand's Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said on Wednesday that Aotearoa, which has five confirmed cases of the virus and two probable, still has a low risk of community transmission. He warned people, however, to be vigilant and not go to large public gatherings if they feel even slightly unwell.

The virus only causes mild symptoms in some people, meaning it is often disregarded by people. In other people, particularly the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions, it can be serious and potentially fatal. 

That advice is particularly important with two major public events this coming weekend: Pasifika in Auckland - where the cases are located - and the Christchurch shooting memorial.

Dr Clark had a similar message for Kiwis about keeping healthy and aware.

"If people are feeling unwell, don't go out. The message… about washing your hands thoroughly. This is the time for OCD. 

"Give your hands a really thorough wash and dry regularly, if you are going to cough, cough into your elbows. But best of all, stay away from other people if you are not feeling well."

The Minister said how the Government and officials respond to the virus on a public health level is constantly changing as new information about the virus is received. He said officials are learning daily and it's hard to predict the number of deaths New Zealand may see.

"We can expect more cases to come in from overseas. As long as we have the right processes to contain them. If we do get little clusters in different places, it will require different responses, we have to be nimble here."

New Zealand's health response has been guided so far by the New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan: A framework for action (NZIPAP). The National Party wants a specific COVID-19 plan developed, but Dr Clark says the current process is working well.

"It is a really solid bit of work that was done under the previous Government, but then has been tested under this Government and it is guiding our decision-making along the way," Dr Clark said.

"Resources will not be a constraint. Public health is our first concern."

Beyond a raft of economic proposals, the Government has introduced travel restrictions in an attempt to limit New Zealand's exposure to the virus. People who have travelled through or from China or Iran cannot enter Aotearoa unless they are NZ or Australian citizens or residents, while those from Italy or South Korea must self-isolate for 14 days.

What we know about coronavirus

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 WHO. The length of time the virus stays alive on surfaces is unknown at this stage, but some viruses can remain active for days. 

The WHO was first informed of cases of the virus in Wuhan on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread through human-to-human transmission. 

"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.

An explainer on protecting yourself from coronavirus can be found here.

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

This article was amended on March 12 to remove a reference to OCD