Friday, 30 Jul 2021

Covid 19 coronavirus: Expert warns about complacency, masks, tracing scans

An expert has urged the Government to push ahead with a signalled order to make masks compulsory on public transport, amid concerns New Zealand is still being complacent about the threat of Covid-19.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins today confirmed Auckland’s latest community case – a student in her early 20s – had been genomically linked to earlier infections of NZ Defence Force staffers.

That made it less likely the latest case was a sign of an undetected outbreak in the community, as some had feared, and more likely it was a “secondary case” caught from the NZ Defence Force cluster.

ESR chief scientist Dr Brett Cowan said the news reflected how crucial genomics was in supporting case investigations.

“As New Zealand identifies new cases, it is crucial to determine the source of infection as knowing the source helps the Government make informed decisions on lockdown levels and helps minimise risk to others who may have been in contact,” he said.

“I would like to applaud the work of our staff, not only for this result, as they worked throughout the night, but for all the 1085 genomes ESR has successfully sequenced to date, often working late and through weekends.”

On Monday, Hipkins will take an order to Cabinet seeking to make mask use on public transport in Auckland mandatory, including all flights in and out of the city.

If Cabinet agrees to the mask mandate, a timeline will be announced on Monday, but it will likely be required by the end of next week.

New Zealanders are being asked to follow that advice now.

Hipkins is also looking at potential new rules around QR code scans at settings like large events.

Lesley Gray, a senior lecturer in Otago University’s Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice, urged vigilance.

“The announcement today is reassuring in that this recent case does have links to a known cluster, although it is concerning that we are talking about cases from several days ago,” she said.

“Given the inevitable time delays for us to find out the ‘what, where, when and who’ from identified cases, this feels very much like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.”

Experts have been particularly alarmed at a falling trend in people using the NZ Covid Tracer app to scan QR codes.

“If everyone in Aotearoa is distancing, scanning and checking in wherever they go, maintaining hand hygiene, and wearing a mask when out and about and on public transport, our risk is minimised,” she said.

Whenever there was a rare community case, she said, it took a number of days to clarify where the cases had been and what the links to prior cases might be.

“If we are taking action to minimise our risks when ‘out and about’ this will keep risk of transmission to minimum. Dropping our prevention strategies means our community risk increases,” she said.

“I urge the Government to make mask wearing on public transport mandatory, and urge people to scan into any location.”

Otago University epidemiologist Dr Amanda Kvalsvig echoed Gray’s concerns.

“The risk of community transmission won’t disappear until the pandemic does.”

Kvalsvig also said one community prevention measure not being discussed much was as simple as fresh air.

“With summer on the way we can keep windows open and socialise outdoors with potentially a huge decrease in the risk of passing on infections,” she said.

“Employers need to be supported to protect their staff by improving ventilation and air quality in the workplace.”

But there would still be settings where people were crowded together in a closed space, she said.

“I welcome the further steps towards mandating mask use on public transport in New Zealand that the minister has announced today, but it doesn’t go far enough.

“The time for gradual, piecemeal endorsement of masks is past. Mask use should be part of our daily lives everywhere in New Zealand, not just reactively when there’s an outbreak.

“Otherwise we’re all at risk from the next outbreak that we don’t yet know about.”

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