New Zealand Steel worker contracts coronavirus, staff warned

New Zealand Steel has warned employees a worker at its Auckland site has contracted coronavirus.

Newshub obtained a letter sent to staff by chief executive Gretta Stephens on Thursday saying New Zealand Steel had been told earlier that morning an employee at its Glenbrook site had tested positive for COVID-19.

"We are pleased to advise that the affected employee has confirmed that they are not seriously ill and are in isolation at home," the letter says.

It's unclear whether this is a new case of coronavirus or an individual the Ministry of Health has previously announced as having the illness, which has infected tens of thousands worldwide. There are at least four people in New Zealand with the virus, as well as a probable fifth.

The steel company, which is understood to employ more than 1000 people, says it is working with the Ministry of Health and the "practises we have put in place are consistent with their recommendations".

"This includes contacting and working with those employees who have had primary contact with the employee."

Close contact is defined as being within one metre of an infected individual for more than 15 minutes, according to Health Minister Dr David Clark. 

"We can confirm that the affected employee has not been in any plant operating areas or the cafeteria," Stephens says in the letter.

The letter provides advice on minimising the risk of getting sick, including by thoroughly washing and drying hands, avoiding close contact with people with cold or flu-like symptoms and covering coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing. 

It also includes New Zealand's travel regulations. No one who has travelled through or from China or Iran can enter New Zealand unless they are a citizen or permanent resident. Those coming from northern Italy or South Korea must self-isolate for at least 14 days when they return to the country.

Newshub has contacted New Zealand Steel for comment.

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 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. 

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. 

More than 93,000 people worldwide have been infected, with nearly 3200 deaths.

"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, which is believed to have come from a marketplace in Wuhan. The Chinese city has become a ghost town with thousands of people there contracting the disease and many dying from it.

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.

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