The benefits of essentially shutting down New Zealand won't be seen for up to 12 days, the Prime Minister has warned, while not ruling out an extension to the lockdown.
New Zealand is under an alert level 4 lockdown, meaning schools and non-essential stores are closed, while Kiwis are instructed to stay at home. The restrictions came as a response to the SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) virus, which has infected 600,000 people worldwide and killed tens of thousands. New Zealand has 451 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Streaming into New Zealanders' homes from Premier House via a Facebook Live on Saturday, Jacinda Ardern responded to several questions Kiwis had about the unprecedented situation the country - and world - is currently in. One was a query about whether the lockdown would last longer than the four weeks it is currently pegged at.
The Prime Minister said she couldn't answer that just yet. Authorities need to see how the number of cases in the country develops over the lockdown period, the benefit of which may not be known for some time.
"The reason we were really upfront about the four weeks is because we have to get through a cycle of the virus. There is a lag to COVID," she told her followers.
"The effects of what we are doing now, we won't see the benefit of for 10-12 days. We are probably only just seeing the benefit of some of the changes we made at our border coming through now."
The Prime Minister has frequently said that cases in New Zealand will likely continue to rise for more than a week. This is because most of those being tested for the virus do so because they develop symptoms. However, the symptoms often don't emerge for up to 14 days, meaning people who contracted the virus just prior to the lockdown coming into force may not be confirmed to have it until midway through the period.
Ardern noted that the numbers should eventually begin to paint a picture about New Zealand's trajectory.
"You'll see from our numbers and what we are learning from our cases whether or not we are on track."
Among the indicators authorities will be looking at is whether community transmission continues over the next four weeks. That is where officials do not know how someone became infected. Most of New Zealand's cases can, at the moment, be linked back to overseas travel, a close contact, or a cluster of cases. But there are some that have unclear origins.
Questioned on Friday about what may trigger the country to go down an alert level and have restrictions loosened, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told reporters that was being discussed later that afternoon.
Professor Shaun Hendy is one of the scientists providing modelling to the Government about the outbreak and told Newshub that Kiwis should prepare for the lockdown to last longer than four weeks.
"Think about it being four weeks but prepare for six weeks," he said.
"I think it's actually reasonably likely that there might have to be more lockdowns but hopefully regional lockdowns."
The ability to be geographically specific with the alert levels was something emphasised by Ardern when she announced them last week. That may mean that only regions with widespread community transmission will remain under lockdown conditions.
Some research, including from the Imperial College of London, has suggested intense measures could be required until a vaccine is developed, which may not be for 18 months.
"The major challenge of suppression is that this type of intensive intervention package - or something equivalently effective at reducing transmission - will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more) - given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed."
Unless the virus is eliminated from the country or vaccinated against, relaxing the lockdown may lead to another spike in cases, which if not properly managed with the ramping up of restrictions, could overwhelm the health system.
"Modelling shows that the higher the level of compliance with the measures in place under alert level 4 the greater its impact will be on reducing our number of COVID-19 cases, and, therefore, the impact that will have in terms of hospitalisations and deaths," Dr Bloomfield said on Friday.
What we know about coronavirus
The World Health Organization (WHO) was first notified of cases of the virus SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan, China on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread via human-to-human transmission. It causes the coronavirus COVID-19 illness.
The virus is primarily spread through droplets in the air after someone sneezes or coughs, however, it can also be contracted by touching surfaces where the illness is present. The length of time the virus stays alive on surfaces isn't fully understood, but some studies have suggested that on some materials it could be for days.
"Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death," the WHO says.
"Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing."
There is currently no vaccine for the sickness.
How can I protect myself?
- avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands
- washing your hands before eating
- carrying a hand sanitiser at all times
- being particularly mindful of touching your face after using public transport or going to the airport
- carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)
- not eating shared or communal food
- avoiding shaking hands, kissing cheeks
- regularly cleaning and sanitise commonly used surfaces and items, such as phones and keys
- avoiding close contact with people suffering from or showing symptoms of acute respiratory infection
- seeking medical attention if you feel unwell.
An explainer on protecting yourself from coronavirus can be found here. Full information can also be found at Covid19.govt.nz
The Ministry of Health is reminding the public to get in touch with Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if they have symptoms or concerns.