Home > Global, Social Issues, The Body Politic > Life in Level 2: The Curious Case of the Very Invisible Virus

Life in Level 2: The Curious Case of the Very Invisible Virus

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As at mid-day on 12 August, Aotearoa New Zealand went to Alert Level 2 and Auckland City to Lockdown, Alert Level 3.  This, the result of four infections discovered in a South Auckland industrial area.

The source of reinfection in South Auckland  is yet to be determined. Options are limited to;

  • Border staff at airports, ports, or quarantine facilities unwittingly picking up the virus
  • An incorrect test result allowing a positive infection to leave a quarantine facility
  • “Lurking” asymptomatic community transmission left over from previous months
  • Returning flight crew member(s) acquiring the virus overseas

The third option  seems unlikely. Where there is asymptomatic infection there are also symptomatic cases where people end up in hospital and ICU care. It seems unfeasible for one to occur, but not the other;

The other hypothesis doing the rounds is that maybe New Zealand never eliminated the virus and that it has been bubbling away undetected in the community for three months.

Professor [Epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws from the University of New South Wales] …thinks this is highly unlikely, and that at least some cases would have had symptoms and presented to medical authorities.

The last option is  the most disturbing. It is no secret that returning airline flight crews from foreign destinations are not required to quarantine for fourteen days, unlike other Returnees passing through our borders;

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The assumption that the new outbreak may have been the result of returning international flight crews is a possibility we should not quickly dismiss.  To test this hypothesis, it is necessary to look at relevant facts.

Firstly, the genome of the covid19 virus in this latest outbreak does not match those who are infected and in current quarantine. As Prime Minister Ardern stated on 14 August,

“This suggests this is not a case of the virus being dormant or of a burning ember in our community. It appears to be new to New Zealand.

So we can rule out the second option above, and part of the first option. There is also no indication of incursion through a port, or an Americold worker have any association with a port worker.

Next: according to Dr Ashley Bloomfield and the Ministry of Health, the genome of the virus indicates it may have originated from one of two countries;

“We are continuing with genome sequencing investigations. What we know so far is that there has been no exact link with a recent case in MIQ from the samples we have been able to genome sequence, however, genome sequencing of new cases resembles the genome pattern from the UK and Australia most closely.”

By contrast, genomic sequencing  points to the original appearance of the virus in late-February as having emanated from North America, not from Asia, Australia, or the UK.

Next: The facility where covid19 was first discovered is Americold NZ Ltd, situated at Mt Wellington. It is also the site where most of the cases have centred.

Suggestions that transmission occurred via importation of chilled/frozen goods between Australian and New Zealand Americold facilities were unequivocally dismissed by the company’s managing director, Richard Winnall;

Americold have investigated and we can completely rule out there is no transfer of product between these facilities in Australia or New Zealand,” Winnall told the Herald today.

We can completely rule out transmission through that speculation on freight. It’s just not possible because there is no freight or supply chain connecting those two properties [Mt Wellington and Melbourne].

In fact, for months and months [there has been no freight between Melbourne and Auckland]. I can’t tell you how long other than my Melbourne facility has confirmed they have no record of shipping to that Mt Wellington facility.”

Otago University professor and epidemiologist, Michael Baker, described the suggestion of viral contamination on imported goods as unlikely;

much less important than direct respiratory spread.

University of Otago professor of infectious diseases, David Murdoch, said;

I think on balance it’s probably less likely, but certainly worth exploring.

Epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, Rachel Graham, pointed out;

“Even frozen, on a surface like that, you’ll see the virus desiccate and dry out, which renders it completely non-infectious.”

And executive director of the World Health Organisation’s Health Emergencies Program, Michael Ryan, stated;

“There is no evidence that food or the food chain is participating in transmission of this virus, and people should feel comfortable and feel safe,” Ryan said in a press briefing on Thursday, adding, “people should not fear food, or food packaging or processing, and the delivery of food.”

Next: Mr Winnall made this salient point;

“We believe that was just two employees that contracted Covid-19 from outside the workplace, that happened to be employees of ours.”

This is where things get… “interesting” (but hopefully not in a Gerry Brownlee kind-of-way).

Americold also has a second facility, at Manu Tapu Drive, only a few kilometres from Auckland Airport;

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One of the Americold workers tested works at the Manu Tapu Drive facility. The results of this person’s test remains unknown as at publication of this story. A Ministry of Health media release dated 13 August stated;

Two of the AmeriCold sites, Mount Wellington and Auckland Airport, have been closed, and all staff from the Airport site have now been tested.

That was three days ago, and the MoH website has no update as to the results of testing of staff at the Auckland Airport Americold site.

The first recorded Americold worker’s (not at the facility near the Airport) was on 31 July.

Working backward from 31 July, the first worker would have been infected roughly fourteen to sixteen days prior to presenting with symptoms. That takes into account approximately 12 to 14 days to incubate; one day presenting; and another day to test and determine a positive result.

The MoH website for covid cases yields the following result for Returnees flying home from Australia;

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Recall that this strain of virus most likely emanated from UK or Australia.

Whilst the evidence above should be regarded as circumstantial, the possibility that an airline flight crew returning to Aotearoa New Zealand carried the covid19 virus and transmitted infection to an Americold staff-member should not be dismissed out of hand.

This country has already had one such instance of returning flight staff carrying the contagion across our borders into the community – with fatal results.

Equally alarming, is that flights from Australia and elsewhere continue to arrive to our country;

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auckland airport arrivals

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None of the flight crew staff are quarantined.

Postscript

Meanwhile, the re-emergence of covid19 outside our quarantine facilities should squash further irrational proposals that we re-open our borders to others apart from returning New Zealanders;

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covid19 nz

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Key’s assertion that;

“We don’t really have a health crisis in New Zealand because we don’t have community transmission; we have a financial crisis that is coming, not a health crisis.”

– defies common sense and should be discarded as the misguided ‘reckons’ of a man with unbalanced priorities. People like Key, David Seymour, et al, should be regarded with derision if we value human life above money.

 

*** UPDATE ***

 

From RNZ:

Covid-19 testing, isolation needs urgent attention – Air NZ staff

19 August 2020

Air New Zealand staff say there are a multitude of loopholes in the airline’s border controls – and Covid-19 testing and isolation requirements need urgent attention.

The Health Minister today met with Air New Zealand to discuss ways to tighten Covid-19 restrictions, after saying he was concerned with their procedures.

While returning travellers must undergo strict 14-day isolation requirements, the air crews bringing them home are largely exempt.

One person working on Air New Zealand’s international flights told Checkpoint there had been unease for sometime among crews about the current rules, which mean only those returning from America are required to self-isolate, have a Covid-19 test on day two and continue to self-isolate until that test comes back negative.

“I think there’s a multitude of loopholes, and some of them are due to the way the airline operates but also unfortunately, I believe that the loopholes and the vulnerabilities at the border, are due to the way things have been designed by Ministry of Health rules.”

He recently returned from a long haul flight which was not to America, so he is not required to self isolate.

“However, I’m doing that, because… it’s the right thing to do. So I am managing the quarantine at home.

“But many crew have difficulty with that, they might have flatmates or they might have the situation so that they cannot physically isolate at home without putting people at risk.”

He said it was vital there was a stand down period and testing between every international flight, especially because the burden was placed entirely on the crew themselves, and staff could fly home domestically to self isolate after completing a long-haul flight.

“In my mind, every flight is similar risk and it’s regardless of how many days you’re over in those destinations – they all carry the same amount of risk and I don’t know why the Ministry of Health or Air New Zealand is able to justify having lower testing requirements for certain trips.”

The Ministry of Health website states that because of the importance of maintaining international air routes, New Zealand-based international air crew are mostly exempt from requirements for isolation if they meet certain conditions.

They include wearing gloves and masks when in passenger areas and full PPE when dealing with a sick passenger suspected of having Covid-19.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said those requirements were agreed on by Air New Zealand and the Ministry of Health, but there was nothing to indicate air crews had been the source of any issues.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said he met with Air New Zealand this morning to discuss their testing protocols and they were working through those practicalities.

The staffer told Checkpoint while Air New Zealand is doing the right thing most of the time, isolation and testing on every international flight has to happen.

“They have a fiscal imperative, which is weighing very heavily on everyone and they would not want to have the extra cost of the stand down between every single flight and the testing. But it’s the only way to be [able] to have better surety protection from the virus getting back into our community.”

Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran said he was supportive of the government considering options for improvements to their current testing regime, and adds the protocols the airline currently has in place are proving to work, because there has not been a case of Covid-19 in the airline since early April.

 

From NZ Herald:

Covid 19 coronavirus: Health Minister Chris Hipkins’ concerns over airline crew coming through the border

19 August 2020

The Government admits it has concerns around the testing of airline crew coming through the border, amid claims from Winston Peters that a “second border breach” led to a hotel worker contracting the virus in central Auckland.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said this morning he was concerned about protocols for international airline crew, and the risk of the virus entering New Zealand.

“I’m meeting with Air New Zealand today to make sure that that’s as tight as a drum,” Hipkins told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking. “I’m not 100 per cent convinced that it is at the moment. I’m going to be absolutely boring into that. There’s no time for rest here. I’ve been doing this job for seven weeks. Every single day I’ve woken up thinking about Covid-19.”

 

If there is one thing we have learned about this virus is that it is ‘tricky’ and that it will exploit any gap in our defences. The gap can be as small as… a virus.

Air New Zealand is obviously concerned about it’s “bottom, line” and how quarantining will impact on it revenue and profits to shareholders.

When it comes to shareholder returns vs the lives of my fellow New Zealanders, I’ll pick the latter Every. Single. Day.

 

*** UPDATE 2 ***

 

From RNZ:

Aug 20, 2020 1:25 PM
RNZ Live
The initial sampling shows that additional work at Americold is not currently warranted and it does appear that contamination of imported chilled packaging was not a likely source of infection at this point and therefore the investigation into finding the source remains open, Dr Bloomfield says.

Aug 20, 2020 1:16 PM
RNZ Live
No virus has been found on any of the swabs taken from the Americold Wiri site. ESR did find very low levels of the virus on four of the 35 gauze swabs taken at the Mt Wellington site. Dr Bloomfield says the positive swabs were from surfaces expected to be touched by a person with the virus.

So that’s that.

The remaining options rely on human-to-human transmission.

The question remains: who was the source of transmission for the Americold worker exhibiting symptoms on 31 July?

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References

ABC News: New Zealand races to track down the source of the Auckland coronavirus outbreak

Stuff media: No quarantine rule for Air NZ international crew after new Covid cases

RNZ: Air NZ silent about Covid-19 cases as staff fears grow over quarantine exemption

Otago Daily Times:  Quarantine exemptions granted to small number

NZ Herald: Covid 19 Coronavirus – Air NZ crew and airport staff to be tested

Ministry of Health: 14 new cases of COVID-19 – Media release 13 August 2020

RNZ:  New Zealand confirms case of Covid-19 coronavirus

Stuff media: Coronavirus – New research reveals how Covid-19 came to New Zealand

NZ Herald:  Covid 19 coronavirus – Two new cases at Americold factory; wait on results of 14 others continues

NZ Herald: Covid 19 coronavirus – Americold director can ‘completely rule out’ NZ’s virus cluster came from Melbourne facility

Stuff media: ‘We’re leaving no stone unturned’: Did New Zealand’s outbreak come from a Melbourne coolstore?

RNZ: Covid-19 – Imported goods as outbreak source an unlikely theory – Professor David Murdoch

Business Insider Australia:  Imported frozen foods may have caused New Zealand’s new coronavirus outbreak. But it’s very rare to get sick from such packages

Mediaworks/Newshub: Coronavirus – Gerry Brownlee denies COVID-19 questions make him a conspiracy theorist

NZ herald: Covid 19 coronavirus – Two new cases at Americold factory; wait on results of 14 others continues

NZ Herald:  Covid 19 coronavirus lockdown – Jacinda Ardern to announce next moves at 5.30pm tomorrow

Ministry of Health:  Covid-19 – current cases details – 1:00 pm, 16 August 2020

Otago Daily Times:  Bluff groom’s father one of Covid-19 deaths

Auckland Airport: Arrivals

Mediaworks/Newshub: New Zealand must consider opening borders soon says Helen Clark, Peter Gluckman and Rob Fyfe

Stuff media: Relax border restrictions to soften Covid-19’s economic blow, Sir John Key says

TVNZ News: David Seymour says second Covid-19 lockdown not the answer and it’s time to ‘learn to live with it’

Additional

RNZ:  Covid-19 testing, isolation needs urgent attention – Air NZ staff

NZ Herald:  Covid 19 coronavirus –  Health Minister Chris Hipkins’ concerns over airline crew coming through the border

Previous related blogposts

Life in Lock Down: Day 28 – An Open Letter to Prime Minister Ardern

Life in Lock Down: Day 2 of Level 3

Life in Level 1: Reinfection – Labour’s kryptonite

Life in Level 1: Reinfection – No, Dr Bloomfield!

Life in Level 1: The Taxpayer’s Coin

Life in Level 1: Cunning Plans, Unanswered Questions

Life in level 1: Newshub Nation, Q + A, and the end of Todd Muller’s leadership

Life in Level 1: The Doom of National

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cartoon murdoch

Acknowledgement: Sharon Murdoch

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 17 August 2020..

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