Just five days ago, New Zealand marked an enviable milestone – 100 days without any community transmission. But this week has demonstrated how quickly that can change, even in a country like New Zealand, which has been seen as a world leader for its handling of the virus.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Friday that Auckland – the city of about 1.5 million people at the center of the new outbreak – will remain under a level three lockdown for an additional 12 days, while the rest of the country will remain below level two. restrictions, which means that gatherings are limited to a maximum of 100 people. The rules extend restrictions that went into effect earlier this week.
Under the level three restrictions, people will be asked to stay away from their homes for essential personal movement, schools will operate at limited capacity, and public places such as museums, playgrounds and gymnasiums will remain closed. .
The new epidemic is a blow to New Zealand. The country has already spent five weeks under one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, which closed most businesses and schools and saw people stay at home.
Earlier on Friday, New Zealand’s chief health officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced 12 more cases of the locally transmitted coronavirus. There are now 49 active cases in New Zealand compared to 49, of which 29 are linked to the recent outbreak.
The cases are all in Auckland with the exception of two in Tokoroa, a 24,000 city about 200 km (124 miles) away. south of the city. According to the Department of Health, both of these people tested positive after a contact visit to one of the Auckland cases.
At a press conference on Friday, Bloomfield said 771 close contacts of confirmed cases had been identified and more than 15,700 tests had been processed as of Thursday – the highest number of tests processed in a single day in the country.
Since the start of the epidemic, New Zealand has carried out more than 500,000 tests. It has reported a total of 1,251 coronavirus cases, including 22 deaths.
What caused the epidemic?
There remains a major and unanswered question: how did this epidemic come about?
The remote island nation imposed strict border controls in March, meaning that, for the most part, only New Zealanders are allowed into the country – and those arriving from overseas must spend 14 days in the country. state quarantine facilities. According to the Department of Health, 68% of New Zealand cases are imported or linked to imported cases.
One possible cause for this latest outbreak is that the coronavirus has somehow been released from New Zealand state quarantine facilities. This is what Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters told Australia’s national television station ABC, saying: “I think there has been a breach in our quarantine system. ”
There have been breaches in New Zealand before – in July, a man walked through a fence at a managed isolation facility to visit a liquor store, and another man who later tested positive for coronavirus went through a fence. escaped from a facility and went to a supermarket. The quarantine facility violations were linked to an outbreak in the Australian state of Victoria, which is currently under lockdown.
So far, authorities have not found a match between the genome involved in this latest outbreak and cases in managed isolation facilities. Bloomfield said the new cases most closely resembled genomic models from the UK and Australia.
Bloomfield believes the outbreak could have originated from the isolation facilities rather than being present for months in New Zealand.
“I think there is very good evidence to suggest that it has not been hidden in the community,” he said. Ardern said on Friday that the strain of the new outbreak was not the same as previously found in New Zealand.
Authorities are also testing surface samples at Americold, a U.S. temperature-controlled warehouse company where one of the first four positive tests worked. A number of cases have been linked to the business.
But Ardern said that, as of now, authorities do not know how the outbreak came about.
“We don’t necessarily need to answer this question to effectively deal with this cluster,” she said.
How New Zealand Stacks Up
New Zealand’s new outbreak drew parallels with Australia and Hong Kong – two places that imposed strict border measures despite having low numbers of infections and appeared to have the virus under control, only to experience a re-emergence of the virus.
In the Australian state of Victoria, a lockdown has been imposed and a curfew put in place in Melbourne. Victoria – a state of about 6 million people – on Thursday had more than 7,800 active cases of coronavirus and 275 deaths.
In Hong Kong, home to around 7.5 million people, there are around 1,000 active cases, 32 of them in critical condition. Sixty-six people have died. Despite the current outbreak, the city has not imposed a lockdown, although people must wear masks in public or face a fine, public gatherings are limited to two people and restaurants and bars must close at night. except for take-out.
On Thursday, Ardern noted that New Zealand had imposed restrictions within 24 hours of the first new cases of community-based coronavirus – a response she said was faster than in Hong Kong or Victoria.
“The pace and speed should also serve as an extra layer of comfort,” she said Thursday, before reiterating the mantra she has said since the start of the epidemic: “Going hard and early is still the best. course of action “.
CNN’s Isaac Yee contributed to this story.