COVID-19: NZ likely 'escaped this time' after Wellington scare, but Govt needs to urgently upgrade its response - Michael Baker

A leading epidemiologist is calling on the Government to urgently upgrade its COVID-19 response to reflect the ever-evolving nature of the virus and forestall future outbreaks.

University of Otago public health physician Michael Baker says the Government cannot rest on its laurels in regards to its current system, which is based on a four-tier alert level framework. Measures to curb potential transmission within the community are imposed at each tier - the higher the level, the more restrictive the measures - with level 4 indicating total lockdown.

Although New Zealand has been successful at staving off the virus for the better part of a year, the latest scare in Wellington shows health officials cannot become complacent with the existing response - and urgent upgrades are required to ensure the system continues to evolve with the virus, Baker says.

"We need to do more. The new Delta variant is very unforgiving - it's pushing back countries across the Asia-Pacific region that have done very well with eliminating this virus for over a year," told The AM Show on Monday morning. 

"I think this is a huge lesson for New Zealand. We really need to look at everything we're doing and do it better and faster."

Last week, it was revealed that an Australian man had tested positive for the virus after spending the weekend in Wellington. He returned the positive result upon his return to Sydney, indicating he was likely ifnectious while in the capital. The man visited a number of public venues and attractions during his trip, with officials identifying 20 locations of interest connected to his travels - or sites where transmission may have occurred. 

It was later confirmed that the man had contracted the highly infectious Delta variant, which is more transmissible than other strains and is believed to be more deadly than the original virus and its earlier mutations.

But so far, it appears New Zealand has dodged a bullet, Baker says. As of Monday, no one in New Zealand has tested positive for the virus outside of managed isolation facilities. As a precautionary measure, alert level 2 - the current setting for the Wellington region - was extended for an additional 48 hours on Sunday. After casting a wide net, officials identified around 2400 people who had come in close proximity to the man - however, all test results returned so far have been negative. Officials are still awaiting the test results for 377 contacts - crucial information that will determine whether or not Wellington is truly out of the woods.

"I think we may have escaped this time. This is just the nature of the virus - if you look at one episode, quite often you're lucky. But you have to look at the pattern of episodes now across this region - and obviously many places have not been so lucky - that could be New Zealand shortly unless we upgrade all our defences," Baker said.

"I think level 2 is okay at the moment, it's just that level 2 needs to be upgraded because it doesn't mean very much to most people. It could be upgraded in important ways, and one of the big ones is to recognise aerosol transmission. You just need fleeting contact with someone who is firing out this virus - they feel fine, they're pre-symptomatic - but they're firing out these respiratory droplets and aerosols that can cross several metres. We need to catch up with this virus."

He believes the pending results will be consistent with the "good news" for Wellington so far, but acknowledged it only takes one infectious person to cause an outbreak.

"We should expect good news, just because we've had no positives so far. But it only takes one person to have been infected, to still be incubating it, and that could start an outbreak."

Baker is now urging the Government to make use of the NZ COVID Tracer app - the country's official contact tracing technology - compulsory for all New Zealanders. It's understood less than 10 percent of the Sydney man's close contacts in Wellington had scanned in at the venues he had visited.

He says New Zealand should follow Australia's lead by making the app mandatory, which will allow contact tracers to rapidly identify those who may have been exposed to the virus in the event of a future outbreak. 

"It's absolutely mandatory in [Australia's] big cities - you scan in," he said. "We've got by with some things being voluntary and people not doing them very much - like scanning in and using masks indoors. We have to move past that… it's a legal requirement to scan in [in Sydney and Melbourne], they're used to it." 

The professor is also calling on the Government to broaden the use of face masks to ensure people are not expelling viral matter while in indoor settings, where it can be difficult to maintain a physical distance. If there are any concerns around the virus, New Zealanders should be donning a face covering as social distancing by a metre or two will not provide adequate protection from aerosol transmission.

"People wear masks indoors because they know this virus spreads by an aerosol, it doesn't obey the 2m rule. We've got to upgrade those aspects in particular while we have the opportunity," he continued.

"The 1m/2m rule won't protect people in workplaces."

However, Baker is optimistic the quarantine-free travel arrangement with Australia can continue to work - despite scepticism from other experts in the field. On Saturday, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced the trans-Tasman air bridge would be suspended for three days following a spate of outbreaks across the country, but particularly in New South Wales.

When asked if officials should consider restarting quarantine-free travel, Baker acknowledged it "works well" as long as potential risk to New Zealand is rapidly assessed. 

"I think we do have to look at other precautions," he added.

And in regards to Wellington, it's likely the man's partial vaccination - having received one of his two doses - played a role in Wellington's good fortune. 

"Some people are not infectious, it's just the nature of the immune system. He also had one dose of vaccine - that may be what saved us."