Coronavirus: Three new cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand

There are three new cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield confirmed during Tuesday's briefing.

There are no additional deaths, the country's death toll remaining at 19.

Unlike other press conferences, Dr Bloomfield and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are providing updates on New Zealand's COVID-19 outbreak and response at different time slots. Dr Bloomfield is speaking at 1pm, while Ardern will take the podium at 1:30pm.

Two of Tuesday's three new cases are confirmed and one is probable, bringing the overall total of confirmed and probable cases to 1472. Of the overall total, 1124 are confirmed - the number reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The two confirmed cases can be traced to known sources, Dr Bloomfield said, one being linked to Auckland's Marist College cluster and the other to the Gladys Mary Care Home in Napier, Hawke's Bay.

The probable case, a South Canterbury patient, is currently under investigation.

On Monday, 2146 tests were processed nationwide, bringing the overall total of processed tests to 126,066. The lower number of tests is reflective of the Easter weekend, as Anzac Day constitutes a public holiday.

As of Tuesday, 1214 people have recovered from the virus, an increase of 34 from Monday. Eighty-two percent of New Zealand's cases are now classified as recovered.

Nine people are hospitalised nationwide, including one patient in the ICU at Auckland's Middlemore Hospital. Their condition was not given.

There are still 16 significant clusters around New Zealand - a cluster constituting 10 or more people.

The 'elimination' goal 

"We still will see cases of COVID-19 under an elimination goal," Dr Bloomfield said, reiterating that New Zealand "hasn't eliminated or eradicated" the virus. The elimination approach focuses on zero-tolerance towards new cases, rather than a goal of no new cases. 

"We haven't eliminated and we haven't eradicated it. Elimination is not a point in time - it's not 'we've got to the end of alert level 4, we've eliminated it'. Our elimination goal continues into alert level 3... and to maintain that we need to be even more vigilant, because we don't have the full protections that a lockdown brings with it," he said.

He noted that New Zealand has succeded in achieving a small number of cases, the sources of which are evident, however new cases will continue to crop up and a number of infections are ongoing. 

"We have seen from overseas experience how quickly those numbers will rise again if we take our foot off the pedal... We have progressed to level 3, but we are by no means in the clear. Elimination is not a point in time, it is a sustained effort to keep it out and stamp it out over many months," Dr Bloomfield said. 

However, the goal of elimination will continue to underpin New Zealand's "keep-it-out-stamp-it-out" approach.

"We have achieved what we set out to achieve under alert level 4 as part of our overall goal of elimination but it remains our goal in alert level 3 - and it certainly will in alert level 2. It's not something that you can just say 'done and dusted... it is an ongoing effort," Dr Bloomfield said.

He defined the "elimination" goal as: "A small number of cases, a knowledge of where those cases are coming from and an ability to identify cases early, stamp them out and maintain strict border restrictions so we're not importing new cases. That's what underpins the elimination goal."

As Tuesday marks the first official day under alert level 3, Dr Bloomfield reiterated that physical distancing is still imperative to maintaining our progress. 

"It is crucial that all New Zealanders remain vigilant and follow the guidelines for level 3 including physical distancing and, like many people returning to work or back at work today, I have enjoyed a takeaway coffee," he said.

"However, it is important not to congregate outside the cafes or other places or car parks of takeaway places like McDonald's when you see old friends. Please do maintain the physical distancing, that will be imperative in alert level 3 - we do not want to see the sort of rebound we have seen in other countries.

"There will be a temptation... to want to catch up... we've got used to [physical distancing] in level 4, and we must maintain it under alert level 3."

Dr Bloomfield noted that antibody testing, which is being used in highly-impacted areas such as New York, is not "useful" to New Zealand at this point in time. Antibody testing can be helpful to identify COVID-19 in people who believe they had the virus, but perhaps didn't show obvious symptoms, were unable to access a test or simply did not get tested. In New York, antibody testing has shown that an estimated 10 percent of the city's population has had the virus since the outbreak began. 

However, Dr Bloomfield says the reliability of antibody testing is still questionable. With New Zealand's relatively small number of cases, the testing is "unlikely to provide us with any useful information".

He also addressed reports of the virus causing blood clots and strokes in younger patients.

"These reports around vascular and blood changes... these are the sort of things we're looking at on a daily basis, to see if we need to advise our clinicians to look out for... it's clear that as a respiratory illness, it does affect other organ systems."

As outlined on Monday, the Director-General has issued a new Order under the Health Act - Section 70. This came into effect from 11:59 on Monday night alongside alert level 3. The order outlines: the functions around isolation or quarantine requirements; the permissions for essential personal movement or recreation; infection control measure requirements for premises; and the ability to close non-compliant premises and prohibitions on gatherings. 

The notice is available to read on the Ministry of Health's website.

'Smouldering ashes' may become 'wildfire'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, speaking at 1:30pm, acknowledged microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles' analogy of "smouldering ashes".

"Smouldering ashes can become a wildfire again if we give them the chance," she said, noting that it can take two to 10 days for people exposed to the virus to become symptomatic. 

"So we wouldn't smell the smoke for a few weeks," she said. "We need to be more vigilant than ever to prevent inadvertent spreading - stay home when possible, limit non-essential travel, keep your bubble small and exclusive, stay home when you're sick, contact your GP and Healthline and get tested.

"There is not one point in time this mission ends... we are not done."