COVID-19: KFC worker Case L wasn't contacted directly by health officials until after shift - OIA documents

New documents confirm coronavirus Case L, who went to work at an Auckland KFC before testing positive three days later, wasn't contacted directly by health officials until after the shift.

Health officials had claimed there were multiple attempts to contact the family, but 19-year-old Case L claimed she did not receive clear instructions to self-isolate before her February 22 shift - leading to a war of words with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Now documents show the first direct communication between Case L and the Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) was on February 23 - the day after.

What advice was provided to Case L's family? 

Case L's sister is Case I, a Papatoetoe High School student who was considered a 'casual plus' contact of the first Papatoetoe High School student who tested positive.

On February 14, Case I received a text message stating: "casual contacts to isolate and test - their families don't need to".

ARPHS says letters were given to Papatoetoe High School students and their parents. However as Case L is not a student at Papatoetoe High School, she would not have been sent anything directly.

The first, sent on February 14 to casual plus contacts of the first Papatoetoe High School student, said Case I was "at low risk of becoming ill" and asked them to stay at home and get tested.

This was followed by a letter on February 17 after two new cases emerged, asking all students to get tested, adding: "Everyone (including household members) is encouraged to stay home until Monday." This meant Case L was asked to stay home until Monday February 22.

A third letter on February 19 reiterated that all students need a negative test before returning to school on Monday February 22.

The Ministry of Health said contact tracers tried to call the family and followed up with text messages, which COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins detailed to media: "Nine phone calls and three text messages to one of the cases from the 15th to the 21st, six phone calls and three text messages to another one of the cases during that period of time where advice specific to family's circumstances could have been given to them."

But Case L says this advice was never received by her family.

"If they tried to contact us multiple times and send us letters and stuff, where is this evidence?" she told Newshub.

Case L tests positive

Case L subsequently went to work at KFC on February 22. The following day - February 23 -  her sister, Case I, tested positive, then Case L tested positive on February 26.

The Prime Minister reacted by saying the KFC worker "should have" stayed home and warned of "repercussions".

Case L says this led to harassment online.

"We're being called stupid, saying that our family needs to be prosecuted, be put in jail… and people saying they need a few slaps to the head."

Dr Bloomfield later admitted it's possible messaging from the school wasn't passed on to the family from the Papatoetoe High School student in the household.

"For those of you who are parents, you may be used to finding notes at the bottom of bags even from a young age, and so whilst the information may have been going out via text message to students, it may not have been shared with parents."

And a Facebook post by the official Unite against COVID-19 website - run by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet - backed up Case L's claims, saying she and her sister were "not required to isolate" at the time they went to work.  

However Hipkins said Case L should have known they weren't supposed to go to work - especially since household members were showing symptoms.

"The two siblings started to show symptoms on the 19th and the 20th, and the person went to work on the 22nd, despite the fact that at that point, there were two people in the household showing symptoms and no one had been tested," he told media.

"The reality is, there is certainly enough information there that the person shouldn't have been going to work."

Case L told Newshub one of her sisters had some aches, but she did not associate those symptoms with the more common COVID-19 symptoms like a sore throat and shortness of breath.

She said if she'd known her sister had COVID-19 she "would have never gone into work". 

When was Case L contacted directly? 

Dispute remains over what information went to the family, and whether this was circulated between family members.

However it's now clear that none of the advice to Case L came directly from public health until it was too late.

Documents obtained under the Official Information Act show the first communication between Case L and ARPHS was on February 23, when they were "advised of being a close contact of a COVID-19 case", and "confirmed they were in isolation" shortly afterwards.

According to political pressure group Lobby New Zealand, which obtained the OIA documents, this shows Ardern "owes an apology to the south Auckland family involved".

"In no circumstance should a COVID-19 patient feel the brunt of misinformed public scrutiny by the Prime Minister or any public official. This undermines the success of New Zealand's ongoing goal of no community transmission," it said in a statement.

The Ministry of Health directed a request for comment to the Prime Minister's Office, which replied: "A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said the content of the letters have been publicly available for some time and she had no additional comment to make on them."