Covid 19 coronavirus: Experts call for level 1.5 in Wellington

Experts have suggested Wellington move to indoor mandatory-masking as officials consider how to respond to a Covid-19 scare in the capital.

Wellingtonians are waiting to hear whether alert levels will change, after an infected person from Sydney spent last weekend in the capital, testing positive on their return to Australia.

The Australian man, who was not fully vaccinated, visited 14 locations of interest – including Te Papa and a bar in the CBD. His partner is awaiting test results.

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told RNZ health officials were currently considering a possible lockdown to curb any potential outbreak.

“Everything is on the table,” he said.

Experts have suggested a shift in alert levels – but not as far as lockdown.

“This news about a person infected with the pandemic virus [SARS-CoV-2] travelling to Wellington is a real concern, especially given the increased infectiousness of the Delta variant,” Otago University epidemiologist Professor Nick Wilson said.

“So, it is very good that the New Zealand authorities are seriously looking at a range of enhanced control options for Wellington.”

Given what was known, Wilson said, it would be reasonable to upgrade Wellington to alert level “1.5”.

“This could include making masks mandatory in all public indoor settings in Wellington – as per Sydney at present.”

Other options with a raised alert level for Wellington that could help avoid any “stay at home” orders being required included working from home as much as possible for all non-essential workers and considering temporarily closing all potential “super-spreading settings” like cafés, restaurants, bars, night clubs and gyms.

Authorities could also enforce mandatory QR code scanning for the above named potential super-spreading settings if they were not closed, and consider cancelling indoor events with more than 20 people.

“These measures could start to be relaxed in a few days’ time if there is no evidence of the infection having spread,” Wilson said.

“But more broadly the Government needs to review how well the transtasman bubble is working in terms of benefits and costs. Should there be more controls in place?

“Probably both countries need to do more to reduce the risk of border system failures – which Australia in particular keeps having but from which New Zealand is also not immune.”

Fellow Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker also said the city should follow Australia’s lead and make people in Wellington wear masks indoors and move to alert level 1.5.

“This what is happening in Australia at the moment. They are avoiding a lockdown by just implementing much wider use of masks.

“No one wants a stay at home order and we can avoid that sort of problem if we start recognising how this virus is transmitted, mainly indoors, mainly in aerosols.”

Dr Andrew Chen, a researcher at University of Auckland-based Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, said people across the country needed to be vigilant and use the NZ COVID Tracer to support contact tracing.

“New Zealand has about 1.4 million devices using Bluetooth tracing, which equates to approximately 44 per cent of the adult population.

“That’s reassuring, although it would be better if this was at least 60 per cent.

“Unfortunately, this is only useful if the case was also using Bluetooth tracing.”

Chen said only about 250,000 to 300,000 people were scanning QR codes or completing manual entries on a daily basis up to Monday this week.

“That is less than 10 per cent of the adult population and is not high enough to give us confidence that we could use that information to contain an outbreak if it appeared anywhere in the country.”

Dr Lesley Gray, a senior lecturer at Otago University’s Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice, said it was understandable Kiwis would have become more complacent, given there hadn’t been any community transmission in New Zealand since February.

“However, as the world opens up and indeed many in New Zealand are calling for more quarantine-free travel bubbles, the inevitability is that at some point a person testing positive for Covid-19 will arrive in or will have visited New Zealand potentially leading to community transmission.

“For example, in the UK, despite their high levels of vaccine coverage, you cannot go into a shop, supermarket or indoor mall without wearing a mask and on entering a café or restaurant you are not seated until you have either scanned the app or provided your contact details.”

“We have to ‘up our game’ and keep it up. Mask wearing in indoor places where mixing with people outside our own household bubble will occur.

“Tracing – it is vitally important that we all increase our use of the Covid-19 tracer app – scan everywhere you go along with having Bluetooth turned on.”

Gray noted that quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand currently didn’t require a pre-departure Covid-19 test.

“While there are some known limitations with pre-departure tests, it would seem sensible to require some form of negative test prior to boarding any flight to New Zealand, whether quarantine-free or MIQ bound,” she said.

“Potentially if the current Sydney case had a pre-departure test, they may not have boarded their flight or visited New Zealand on this occasion.

“None of us want alert level increases in any of our towns or cities, but if the alert level has to rise for Wellington as a precautionary measure to minimise transmission this is a further reminder to maintain effective hand hygiene, mask up on public transport, up your tracer app use and self-isolate if you feel unwell, have any symptoms or are identified as a possible contact.”

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