Coronavirus: Likelihood of case in New Zealand 'high'

Officials from the Ministry of Health believe the likelihood of a coronavirus case in New Zealand is "high" but that the probability of a community outbreak is "low". 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield held a press conference on Monday in Wellington to discuss the current status of the coronavirus which is spreading across the globe. 

He said while there has not yet been a confirmed case of the virus in New Zealand - which originated in China - it is likely a case will emerge, with four confirmed in Australia out of more than 2000 confirmed cases worldwide. 

"The situation in New Zealand remains unchanged... however, our assessment is that the likelihood of us getting a case is high," Dr Bloomfield said. 

He said that's because other countries have confirmed cases of the illness and that people can be asymptomatic for up to 14 days so they "may be incubating it" when they come to New Zealand. 

"We've also assessed that the likelihood of transmission if we do get a case is low to moderate because we are prepared and ready.

"And at this stage, based on current information, our assessment is the likelihood of a sustained community outbreak remains low. We are constantly reviewing that assessment and will continue to do so."

All travellers who come to New Zealand, who display symptoms within a month of their arrival, are encouraged to seek medical advice, contact a health line or their doctor and share their travel history. 

"This is not new - it is advice that people routinely receive on entering the country and this messaging has been enhanced over the last few weeks with the first advisory going out on January 6," Dr Bloomfield said. 

He encouraged the public to be mindful of personal hygiene, such as frequent washing of hands, good cough and sneeze etiquette, staying at home and isolating yourself if you are sick, and avoiding close contact with others. 

He also encouraged the public to wear masks to protect from potential spread of the illness. The sale of masks at some pharmacies in New Zealand has been restricted due to high demand

"We have a cross-Government border working group that convened on Friday that has a range of Government agencies as you might expect," Dr Bloomfield added. 

"All Government agencies have been updated on the situation and on the actions that they can undertake as part of the cross-Government effort."

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield delivering an update on the coronavirus in Wellington.
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield delivering an update on the coronavirus in Wellington. Photo credit: Newshub

He said the World Health Organisation (WHO)'s advice on the illness hasn't changed. 

"They don't recommend any specific measures for travellers and it also advises against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China based on current information."

The National Health Coordination Centre will be activated on Tuesday. It was last activated in August last year to direct the response to the measles outbreak, and before that following the Kaikōura earthquake, that struck in 2016. 

Dr Bloomfield said it is "unusual" to use quarantine powers because "people generally self-isolate" if they are showing symptoms of an illness. 

Lakes District Health Board announced on Monday that three members of a tour group of 19 were assessed at Rotorua Hospital on Sunday for the coronavirus illness. 

Public health services were alerted that they may have been exposed to someone with confirmed coronavirus infection on a previous flight into Sydney on January 20. 

Three were clinically assessed at Rotorua Hospital and let go before the 14-day incubation period - and this sparked questions from the press. 

"These people have been assessed by specialists in the hospital who are used to seeing people with viral illness and they assessed them as not displaying symptoms of a viral illness," Dr Bloomfield said.

Signs put up in Auckland Airport warning people about the coronavirus.
Signs put up in Auckland Airport warning people about the coronavirus. Photo credit: Supplied

He said it is currently "under active consideration" whether people from flights arriving in New Zealand from Australia will be screened since there have been confirmed cases. 

"The border response is important and needs to be proportionate to the other parts of the response," Dr Bloomfield said. 

He pointed to the public health staff the Government has deployed to Auckland and Christchurch airports to assess people arriving from flights from China. 

If a passenger's temperature is over 38degC they will be offered further advice and assessment "as appropriate".

District Health Boards (DHBs) have developed a hand-out and information post to display at the airports to circulate around flight passengers.

"The most important thing we have to do at the border is ensure people have good information about what to do."

An expert in the UK has warned as many as 100,000 people could be infected with the coronavirus as the disease continues to spread around the world.

Dr Bloomfield said New Zealand does not have direct contact with China, but said he has "no reason" not to believe the information coming from the Chinese government and the data being shared. 

Cabinet meets on Tuesday morning and the issue will be discussed.