New Zealand's last active case of COVID-19 has recovered, the Ministry of Health confirmed in a statement on Monday, with no new recorded cases for 17 consecutive days.
The latest recovery means there are no known active cases of the virus in the country, indicating New Zealand could potentially be COVID-free.
As of Monday, 294,848 tests have been carried out since the beginning of the outbreak, which constitutes just 6 percent of New Zealand's population. Although it cannot be guaranteed that COVID-19 has been completely eradicated from our shores, Monday's accomplishment is a positive sign that the virus has been successfully controlled.
Monday also marks Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement as to whether the country is ready to move to alert level 1 of the COVID-19 response, which will see New Zealanders return to almost pre-COVID normality - but with better hand hygiene.
The Ministry of Health was notified by Auckland Regional Public Health that the remaining case has been symptom-free for 48 hours and is deemed as recovered. The person has now been released from isolation.
The final active case had been linked to the St Margaret's Hospital and Rest Home cluster in Auckland.
"This is really good news for the person concerned and it's also something the rest of New Zealand can take heart from," Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said in a statement.
"Having no active cases for the first time since February 28 is certainly a significant mark in our journey but as we've previously said, ongoing vigilance against COVID-19 will continue to be essential."
The individual was initially regarded as a probable case, but was removed when they tested negative for COVID-19. The person eventually became unwell again and returned a positive test. They were then included in the national tally as a confirmed case.
Further analysis confirmed the individual did not have a COVID-19 infection at first and the ministry's reporting now reflects that more accurately, according to the statement. The data table on the ministry's website now reflects the date they officially became a confirmed case.
NZ's official COVID-19 statistics - Monday, June 8
- Number of confirmed cases: 1154 (the number reported to the World Health Organization)
- Combined total of confirmed and probable cases: 1504
- Number of recovered cases: 1482
- Number of virus-related deaths: 22
- Number of active cases: Zero
- Current number of virus-related hospitalisations: Zero
- Total number of tests completed to date: 294,848 (on Sunday, 800 tests were processed).
In the statement, the Ministry of Health noted that the COVID-19 testing process will be subjected to "constant review". It assured New Zealanders that testing capacity remains high and testing within communities and at the border will continue to be an integral part of the elimination strategy.
"We want to encourage and remind everyone that if they have any respiratory symptoms, they should seek advice from Healthline, their GP or after-hours clinic about getting tested. Testing is free," said the statement.
Eight of New Zealand's 16 significant clusters of the virus have been closed. A cluster is considered to be closed when there have been no new cases for two incubation periods (28 days) from the date when all cases had completed isolation.
NZ COVID Tracer app
The Government's official contact tracing digital technology, the NZ COVID Tracer app, has now recorded 522,000 registrations - an increase of 5000 since this time on Sunday.
The Ministry of Health continues to encourage New Zealanders to download and use the app to record their location history. The "digital diary" will be used to aid contact tracing efforts in case of a future case or outbreak, allowing potential contacts of the infected person to be identified and isolated swiftly and efficiently.
Businesses can generate a unique QR code to display in-store, meaning patrons can use their app to scan the code and keep a record of the public places they have visited. The number of posters created by businesses now stands at 37,504, while the total number of scans to date is 734,415.
Experts laud Monday's update
In a statement released to mark Monday's achievement, University of Otago Public Health Professor Michael Baker - a frequent commentator on New Zealand's COVID-19 outbreak and response - recognised the final recovery as "an important milestone" on the path to elimination.
"These active cases are not themselves a major concern as we know about them and can ensure they are safely isolated. The worry has always been about the undetected cases that can cause outbreaks if we come out of lockdown too swiftly," he noted.
"As long as we are still at level 2, we need to continue to follow physical distancing and other rules designed to minimise our risk of spreading COVID-19 and having another outbreak."
However, Baker maintains a reserved stance on New Zealand's potential move to alert level 1, acknowledging this is "the first battle" of a "long-term war".
"The threat from COVID-19 obviously remains while this pandemic continues across the globe. This risk will rise again in New Zealand as we gradually increase the numbers of incoming travellers. It will also rise during the coming winter when coronaviruses are more transmissible," he explained.
He has called for face masks to be worn in high-risk settings where people are tightly-packed - such as on public transport and aircrafts - to minimise the chances of future outbreaks caused by imported cases.
He says public health measures such as hand washing, staying at home when sick and practicing good coughing and sneezing etiquette provide limited protection against indoor contact with pre-symptomatic carriers, a major source of transmission. This is where face masks are useful as they provide an additional layer of protection, Baker advises.
"Now is also the time to review the national and local response to this pandemic and consider what changes are needed to get us through the next one to two years, or longer, of this pandemic. There is good evidence that we need a dedicated public health agency to manage our response to COVID-19 and other serious public health threats - a New Zealand Centres for Disease Control (CDC) type organisation," Baker suggested.
Associate Professor Dr Arindam Basu from the University of Canterbury's College of Education, Health & Human Development, noted that the Government has had to balance both science and policy in their response.
"Ideally, one would wait for about 28 consecutive days with no active cases - at the end of which it would be considered safe to open up the restrictions completely as the risk of new cases emerging would be minimal by then," he suggested.
"But we now have effective disease surveillance, increased testing capacity and improved contact tracing. With all these things in place, watchful removal of restrictions might be considered safe enough."
However, he backed Baker and the ministry's view that New Zealand is not yet out of the woods.
"Moving from level 2 to alert level 1 does not signify that there are no risks of new infections. The source of these new infections would be from people who may be infected without showing symptoms, and may now become mobile," Basu said.
"As we move into winter months, some places will experience overcrowding. If you take these factors into consideration, people with asymptomatic infections will have a higher chance of coming into contact with and potentially infecting others.
"This is why it would be safest for most people to be watchful and still maintain relatively safe distances when interacting with others; practice hand-washing and respiratory hygiene; and wear masks on public transport."