Coronavirus: Managed isolation facilities in middle of Auckland 'nuts' - medical expert

Placing new arrivals to New Zealand into managed isolation facilities in the middle of Auckland is "nuts", according to a medical expert.

Three community cases of COVID-19 have been detected in Northland and Auckland over the last week. All three are genomically linked and recently left the Pullman Hotel managed isolation centre in the Auckland CBD.

That suggests to authorities that transmission between a source case and the three now-community cases occurred within the facility. The Pullman Hotel will no longer accept new guests while an investigation is underway and the COVID-19 Response Minister says the Government will receive advice on what more it can do to limit potential spread among new arrivals.

University of Auckland Professor of Medicines Des Gorman told The AM Show on Friday that the hotels weren't designed for what they are now being used for. 

"They were designed to bring you and I together for social encounters, not to keep us separated and certainly not to stop us spreading around an infectious virus," he said. "We are using facilities which are simply unsuitable for purpose"

Gorman said New Zealand has done well in its fight against COVID-19, putting its success down to "how well we behaved during the first lockdown, the fact we are remote islands at the bottom of south Pacific and spade loads of dumb good luck".

But he is worried we may have become complacent and aren't urgently adapting.

One of the biggest recent developments has been the emergence of new, more transmissible strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that were originally found in the likes of the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. 

Gorman is advocating for the Government to put a stop to travel from countries where the virus continues to run rampant while we ensure our MIQ facilities are up to scratch. 

"I would actually recommend we stop people coming in from the UK, the US and South Africa and perhaps Brazil for the next three or four weeks while we reset our protocols. Our protocols were struggling with the previous incantations of the virus."

He said even before this new strain of the virus came about there had been some breaches at hotels. Tens of thousands of people have, however, gone through the facilities without issue.

"We have now got a more infectious virus which may also be more virulent. It is time to hit pause and to actually reset. In that reset, you simply have to say that putting people with a highly infectious strain of the virus in a hotel in the middle of Auckland CBD is frankly nuts."

The Government has resisted blocking Kiwis returning home, saying they have a right to return to their home country, but Gorman says this must be balanced with the "rights of our community to be safe". 

While investigations into the Pullman Hotel cases are underway, the Government has already made some changes. Chris Hipkins mentioned on Thursday that air conditioning in the Jet Park hotel, the main quarantine facility, will now run 24/7. 

"There is positive air pressure in the hallway. If someone opens their room and there are any COVID-19 particles in their room because they have COVID-19, then they will be pushed back into their room rather than allowed to drift out into the hallway."

Other experts have suggested toughening measures at the border, such as Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker who wants to see the number of people returning reduced. 

"The systematic change here is to reduce the number of infected people arriving on flights from overseas," he told Newshub on Sunday.

"New Zealand could potentially suspend travel from those countries where there's a higher risk of infected people arriving, and also where the new variant is becoming dominant. We could suspend travel for a few months until we have sufficient vaccines in New Zealand to vaccinate all the MIQ workers, and we feel confident that we can manage this risk effectively."

Baker has also advocated for specialised quarantine facilities to be built. 

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, a senior research fellow at the University of Otago, Wellington's Department of Public Health, wants to see people isolating before they take a flight to New Zealand. 

"A five-day pre-flight hotel quarantine with at least two tests would greatly reduce the risk. Reducing the number of MIQ spaces, unfortunately, looks increasingly necessary until the protective effect of vaccines has properly kicked in," she said.

Another suggestion is to put people from different countries into different facilities. The point of that would be to stop someone from a country with a high number of infections from having any interaction with someone from a country with few.

But Hipkins this week said that wouldn't necessarily work as people from different countries often come to New Zealand on the same flight and transfer through the same locations. They could transmit the virus to each other there.