Coronavirus: US doctor who moved here to avoid COVID-19 full of praise for NZ's response

A leading US doctor who moved to New Zealand to avoid catching COVID-19 has praised her adopted home's response to the pandemic, urging her fellow Americans to do exactly what we did.

Judy Melinek is a forensic pathologist who helped sift through the remains of the World Trade Centre following the 2001 attacks and later became a best-selling author. She relocated from San Francisco to Wellington in July after being offered a job here, getting a 12-month work visa as an essential worker.

New Zealand at the time was on alert level 1, having successfully defeated the first wave of COVID-19. The US on the other hand was in the depths of a massive surge - recording 60,000 new infections every day the week Dr Melinek touched down in Auckland with her husband and two teenage daughters. 

In a new op-ed for MedPage Today - a site aimed at healthcare professionals - she says there were many reasons for fleeing the US - but the pandemic was "by far the biggest".

"I was despairing at the federal government's incompetent response to the pandemic, I did not feel safe at work, and our at-home kids were frustrated with online high school and the prospect that they would not be able - ever again, apparently - to enjoy the close personal company of their friends."

The pitch she received from her new employer - Communio - was that moving to Wellington would "improve your lifestyle and opportunities and be far removed from the challenges of COVID-19", which she called a "damn good pitch".

"I wanted to see what a successful public health response to COVID-19 looked like," she wrote. 

The US response has been a mess, with basic medical advice like wearing masks and physical distancing becoming politicised and different states and cities trying different things, with little central planning. 

In contrast, Dr Melinek says New Zealand wasted no time.

"Before there was a single death, New Zealand's Government imposed a stringent nationwide lockdown. They used it - seven weeks of misery for the entire population of five million - to create and implement the health system's scale-up of testing and contact tracing."

On arrival in New Zealand, Dr Melinek documented her quarantine stay on Twitter, regularly posting pictures of what the hotel staff prepared for meals, excitedly digging into Kiwi favourites like sausage rolls and Marmite (which she inexplicably called 'Kiwi vegemite'), and making a few feeds herself from the classic Edmonds cookbook. 

In the op-ed, she explained how the contact tracing system works, including the mandatory QR codes for businesses - just this week the White House said it wouldn't bother contact tracing everyone potentially exposed in its outbreak, which presently has about  as many active cases as all of New Zealand. 

Dr Melinek also outlines how we've used DNA testing to figure out where cases came from - such as the rubbish bin which made headlines last week - how the response has adjusted over time, and praised the 1pm daily briefings which kept the public up-to-date with the latest.

"When a handful of people decided to test the quarantine limits by absconding from managed isolation hotels, they stepped up security. When a few of the staff at the facilities tested positive, they reviewed the procedures for testing and sanitation, and changed their protocols... When the science behind the efficacy of mask-wearing changed, so did community outreach."

The "three big things" she wants the US to learn from New Zealand are that:

  • good leadership works - "Good leaders listen to their epidemiologists to come up with that strategy and find a route to a compromise on everything else."
  • empathy and science must go hand-in-hand - "Education and encouragement combined with financial support to provide for them while they are in isolation keeps them from becoming the Typhoid Marys of our age."
  • stay nimble - "As science changes, the public health message has to change, and it has to be hammered home with consistency and repetition."

Dr Melinek says it would take just six weeks to eliminate COVID-19 from the United States, if it wanted to.

"Yes, it will cost money. But we have now stumbled through seven-plus months of this pandemic with inconsistent half-measures while the deaths and the overall costs continue to spiral up, with no plan to control them and no plan to cut off their cause.

"We can get to zero. We'll have to pull together to do it, but we're good at that."