Coronavirus: Broadening COVID-19 testing criteria applauded by public health expert

The Prime Minister's decision to broaden criteria for COVID-19 testing is being praised by an expert in public health.

On Tuesday, Jacinda Ardern announced that anyone with symptoms for the coronavirus, which has infected more than 600 people in New Zealand and about 820,000 worldwide, could now be tested. The three main symptoms for the illness COVID-19 are shortness of breath, a cough and a fever.

Previously, to get tested people needed to have symptoms and a link to overseas travel or a confirmed/probable case. Clinicians were also able to use their judgement, but Newshub has heard from many people around the country who were turned away, despite having a referral from their GP.

This approach also came under criticism from experts like Sir David Skegg, who said it meant instances of community transmission - where the infected individual has no clear link to another case - were being missed.

"The actual number of people who have been infected will be far higher than the 589 notified and we really have no idea of the extent of community spread," Sir David told Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee on Tuesday.

Professor Nick Wilson, who conducted modelling for the Government on the potential worst-case scenarios of COVID-19, also called for more vigorous testing to detect community transmission.

"Basically, anyone turning up to an emergency department or a hospital with any respiratory condition should be tested. We should be doing random testing in different communities," he said.

However, Professor Michael Baker, an expert in public health, says Ardern's decision to broaden the criteria is better now than never.

"I think it is a very positive move. Obviously, it is part of an increase in the testing capacity in New Zealand," he told Newshub.

"This will achieve two things: It will enable the system to identify cases in the community if they are there and so those cases in the community can be promptly put into isolation and contacts followed up. That's a key part of containing this virus in New Zealand.

"The other thing it will do, it will give us more information about… COVID-19 in the wider population in New Zealand and whether there is very much community transmission happening."

Of New Zealand's 648 confirmed and probable cases, 1 percent are defined as community transmission, while 53 percent had links to overseas travel, 29 percent had contact with a known case and 17 percent were under investigation. Since early March, more than 21,000 tests have been conducted with an average of 1777 per day over the last week.

Prof Baker said high-levels of testing, such as what was done in South Korea, have proven effective.

"We are following a model used very successfully in some countries in Asia which is doing a lot of testing and ensuring cases are very swiftly identified.

"We know from overseas experience that this works."

He also acknowledged the laboratory staff working around the clock to get test results back in an environment where every hour and day matters. That's particularly true when public health officials need to get in touch with contacts of confirmed cases as soon as possible. 

Identifying how widespread community transmission is in New Zealand will become crucial over the coming weeks when authorities consider whether to extend our nationwide lockdown. If community transmission continues across the country, those restrictions may remain in place, or if it's only happening in some regions, only specific places may continue to be subject to the lockdown. 

Several papers from both New Zealand and overseas have suggested that intensive measures may be required until a vaccine is developed, which is between a year and 18 months away.

"The major challenge of suppression is that this type of intensive intervention package - or something equivalently effective at reducing transmission - will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more) - given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed," a paper from the Imperial College of London says.

Unless the virus is eliminated from the country or vaccinated against, relaxing the lockdown may lead to another spike in cases, which if not properly managed with the ramping up of restrictions, could overwhelm the health system.

Prof Baker said everyone can help limit the virus' exposure by following the lockdown rules and keeping their hygiene levels high.

"Everyone in the whole country has to do their bit. That is following the guidelines, staying at home as much as possible, avoiding contact with people outside the house, and again, if you are touching surfaces outside the house, make sure you wash your hands."

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 studies have suggested that on some materials it could be 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.