Coronavirus: New Zealand in race to eliminate COVID-19 before winter 'challenge'

The Government faces a race against time as it attempts to eradicate COVID-19 before the usual upsurge in respiratory illnesses during New Zealand's winter months.

Each year, there is a spike in viruses across June, July and August - most notably in influenza, which brings a sharp increase in illnesses, hospitalisations and deaths across this period.

However in 2020, influenza has been relegated to a side note in the nationwide battle with coronavirus, which has already caused 1409 infections and 11 deaths on our shores.

This prompted the Government to introduce stringent measures to curb COVID-19, which the Ministry of Health has revealed is partly due to the looming "challenge" that the winter months pose to our health system.

"The Government is aiming for elimination of the COVID-19 virus or as close as possible to elimination," a Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newshub.

"This will be backed up by intense surveillance to detect re-emergence of the virus, and prompt a public health response if new cases are found. The entire health system will not be 'relaxing its guard' over winter.

"Looking out for COVID-19 cases while there is an increasing number of the usual respiratory viruses around will be a challenge. This is one of the reasons for the strong measures being taken now."

New Zealand's "strong measures" include the escalation of the coronavirus alert level system to level 4. This has seen the country confined to household 'bubbles' for weeks, with Kiwis only allowed out to exercise, access essential services or attend essential work.

Alert level 4 is expected to come to an end next week, but the Ministry of Health warns we could return to that response again if our coronavirus response starts going downhill.

"There is an ongoing possibility of putting alert levels back up again over the coming months if COVID-19 re-emerges and can not rapidly be contained," the spokesperson said.

The ministry says while it doesn't yet know how the virus that causes COVID-19 responds to colder temperatures, it assumes it will spread more easily in winter because that's what other respiratory viruses do.

"Most illnesses caused by respiratory viruses are more common in the winter months," the Ministry of Health told Newshub.

"We can assume that any respiratory virus including COVID-19 will spread more easily in winter months because people are spending more time indoors and closer to each other. This doesn't mean the disease is more severe, but that it could be at more risk of spreading."

While the ministry is concerned about the effects of winter, new research out of China suggests the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads just as easily in hot, humid weather as it does in the cold.

If accurate, it means New Zealand's coming winter might not exacerbate the outbreak if we fail to eradicate it.