Coronavirus: Ministry of Health confirms 54 new cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand

The Ministry of Health has announced there are 54 new cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, taking the country's total to 1160.

Of the new cases, 32 are confirmed and 22 are probable. There are no new deaths. Overall, 241 people have recovered from infection.

The latest update was provided by Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield at his daily press conference on Tuesday in Wellington.

Dr Bloomfield said of New Zealand's cases 42 percent are linked to overseas travel and 41 percent are contacts of known cases. Community transmission is at 2 percent, while the rest are being investigated.

The 52 new cases is the lowest number recorded in New Zealand in two weeks. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was also at the press conference and said, while she urged caution, the relatively consistent number of cases suggested lockdown measures are working.

"For the moment, we do appear, at this early stage, to be on track."

She didn't want people to become complacent, however, especially with Easter coming up this weekend. People shouldn't be leaving their normal residence to head away on holiday. Dr Bloomfield agreed and said people needed to have a "staycation".

Most of the infected individuals are European (73.3 percent), followed by Asian (8.5 percent), Maori (7.8 percent) and Pacific (3.4 percent).

In terms of testing, the daily average over the last week is 3063 each day. More than 42,000 tests have been conducted to date. On Monday, 2908 tests were processed. Capacity continues to increase and as of Tuesday it is at 44,000. By the end of the week it should be between 50,000 and 60,000. There are 50,000 nasal swabs in stock, with another 250,000 arriving in the country soon.

The Director-General also noted that the World Health Organization has updated its advice on face masks in the community. It doesn't recommend the use of medical masks by the general public, unless they are sick or caring for someone unwell.

Border restrictions will be shortly ramped up, the Prime Minister said, but she had no specific announcement. Dr Bloomfield said officials need to be confident new cases can't get into New Zealand via the border if we are to move down to Alert Level 3. There have been calls for all new arrivals into New Zealand to be quarantined.

Questioned about the Ruby Princess cruise ship, which is linked to a cluster of cases in the country, Ardern said passengers who were unwell on the ship were not meant to be allowed to disembark. The Hawke's Bay Medical Officer of Health sought assurance from the ship's captain that that was the case when it docked in the region. The Prime Minister told reporters that considering the cases here linked to the ship, she has asked for legal advice over whether the ship fufilled its obligations.

There have been 291 breaches of the lockdown rules, with 16 people prosecuted, 263 warnings and 10 youth referrals.

Ardern earlier on Tuesday stripped Health Minister Dr David Clark of his Associate Finance Minister role and demoted him to the bottom of the Cabinet rankings. That came after he admitted breaching the nationwide lockdown rules by driving 20km to a beach.

He is retaining the Health Minister role as Ardern said she couldn't afford disruption during the pandemic. She said it would take significant time to get someone else up to speed.

Ardern reiterated at the Tuesday press conference that Dr Clark's actions were unacceptable and he would be sacked if it wouldn't cause so much instability.

"For that reason, and that reason alone, Dr Clark will maintain his role."

On The AM Show on Tuesday morning, Dr Clark apologised to Kiwis for his error in judgement, acknowledging that many of them are making sacrifices during this difficult time. 

"I have got this completely wrong. I have made a mistake... I have let New Zealanders down.

"Clearly I was not thinking straight and I got this wrong. There is no way around it. I got this plain wrong... I don't have any excuses".

New Zealand is currently under a lockdown, implemented in order to stem the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It requires Kiwis to stay indoors unless they are heading out for essential services or exercise. 

The rules, however, have created confusion among some, prompting the Director-General of Health to release a health notice last week confirming people can only "leave their residence for exercise if it is done in an 'outdoor place that can be readily accessed from their residence'". Officials have said driving a short distance is permitted.

Speaking about the numbers on Monday, Dr Bloomfield said it was encouraging New Zealand wasn't seeing large increases each day despite the ramping up of testing over the last week. He said data over the next days will help inform when New Zealand comes out of lockdown. 

"What we will be looking at in terms of forming a decision by the Government on moving from level 4 to level 3 is not just the number of tests but the number of positive tests and the direction of travel," he said.

"We can see we've had several data points now that are quite comfortably showing it's levelling off at this point. What we will be wanting is to see that rate actually start declining, the rate of new cases."

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.

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.

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.