Coronavirus: Ministry of Health confirms 61 new cases of COVID-19

The Ministry of Health has confirmed New Zealand has 47 new confirmed cases and 14 probable cases of COVID-19, taking the country's total to 708 cases.

There are no new deaths and 82 cases have now recovered in total. There are 14 cases in hospital, with two of those being in intensive care units. Those two patients are stable. 

The latest update was announced by Dr Caroline McElnay, the Director of Public Health, during a press conference on Wednesday.

More than half of the 61 new cases had strong links to overseas travel, 30 percent had links to confirmed cases within New Zealand, while community transmission is estimated at 1 percent.

A new case definition for clincians has been issued. Anyone with respiratory symptoms that are consistent with COVID-19 can be tested, regardless of travel history or contact with a confirmed case. Doctors are advised to continue using their judgement. 

The country's testing capacity is 3700 tests per day, with an average of 1843 tests per day being conducted over the last week. There are eight labs testing. This will extend to ten next week, increasing capacity.

The change to testing criteria came after experts warned that strict criteria meant community transmission was likely not being regularly picked up. Community transmission, where an infected individual cannot be linked to another case, is what authorities will be watching over the next three weeks as it will largely determine if our nationwide lockdown is extended.

Dr McElnay said the lower number of new cases were "encouraging", but a jump was still expected due to the increased testing.

She told reporters on Wednesday that officials were continuing to follow-up on clusters. The Ministry of Health is now defining clusters as groups with more than 10 cases.

They are:

  • Marist College, Auckland: 50 cases (two in the last 24 hours)
  • Redoubt Bar, Matamata: 32 cases (nine in the last 24 hours)
  • World Hereford Conference: 27 cases (three in the last 24 hours)
  • A wedding in Southland: 22 cases (14 in the last 24 hours)
  • Wellington group which travelled to United States: 15 cases (one fewer case in the last 24 hours as a probable case was downgraded to suspected)
  • Hamilton rest home: 14 cases
  • Wellington wedding: 11 cases

Civil Defence's Sarah Stuart-Black also provided an update on flights taking New Zealanders who have arrived back into the country at Auckland Interastional Airport to other main centres.

The first flight took 57 passengers from Auckland to Wellington to Christchurch. These people had been in isolation in Auckland. All passengers were without COVID-19 symptoms.

Another flight will take place on Wednesday afternoon.

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.

Modelling presented to the New Zealand Government showed up to 14,400 people could die of the virus if no significant action was taken.

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.

New Zealand's first virus-related death was announced on Sunday. Greymouth woman Anne Guenole, aged in her 70s, returned a positive test for COVID-19 after initially being diagnosed with influenza, complicated by an underlying health condition.

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.