Spike in Covid-19 cases expected as testing surges

With broader testing criteria coming into place, the Government is expecting to discover more Covid-19 cases within the community, Marc Daalder reports

The Ministry of Health admitted on Wednesday afternoon that it was likely missing cases of Covid-19 spreading within the community because testing criteria were too narrow.

"We still expect to see that increase because now we will be getting more testing. We've broadened the case definition so that should result in more positive results coming through," Director of Public Health Caroline McElnay told reporters.

The admission comes a day after the Prime Minister said New Zealand needed to test more people and that the case definition - which signals to officials whether or not they should give a test to a particular patient - needed to be broadened. While it previously stated symptoms should be accompanied by a history of international travel or contact with a confirmed case - although a clinician's judgment could override this - the definition will now focus solely on the symptoms.

Ardern reiterated on Wednesday that the Government was not at fault for the lack of testing. "You will have heard me constantly and consistently say that clinicians needed to use their discretion and that always existed," she said.

"Regardless of international travel, regardless of contact with anyone else who had Covid, they've always had the discretion to test if they believed they needed to. Now we have another change from the doctors, the clinicians, again, that has broadened it out even further for absolute clarity."

Ardern was unable to explain why, when it became evident over the previous two weeks that not enough physicians were using that discretion, the Government hadn't acted sooner to change the testing definition.

When she made her comments on the expected rise in cases, McElnay was answering a question about the consistent decline in the number of new daily cases over the past few days. "I think those numbers are encouraging but it's much too early to say what that actually means," she said.

There were 61 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, up three from Tuesday's figures and down 15 from Monday. Of the 708 Covid-19 cases in New Zealand, 82 people have recovered. Another 15 are in hospital, two of whom require intensive care but are in stable condition.

Sarah Stuart-Black, the director of Civil Defence, told reporters that chartered flights were beginning to transport New Zealanders returning from overseas to their homes in Wellington and the South Island. Fifty-seven people were taken to Wellington and Christchurch yesterday and more flights are expected in the coming days. These people will still be required to self-isolate for 14 days from when they entered the country.

McElnay said New Zealand could now test up to 3700 people a day for Covid-19 but that the average number of daily tests carried out over the past week was just over 1800. She also didn't rule out a suggestion for random testing.

"We're developing a surveillance plan for Covid-19. By that I mean we will be identifying all the different information sources that we need to allow us to truly say what is happening with Covid-19 disease in New Zealand. That type of approach, a community survey for some communities, could be part of that plan," she said.

When asked if that could involve knocking on random doors and taking Covid-19 tests, she said "we haven't excluded that. That's part of our planning process".

In addition to testing, contact tracing is also being scaled up. "We're bringing on more people and we're also using technology in order for that to be able to have the capacity to do more contact tracing and also to provide information on those contacts," McElnay said. There were 418 close contacts traced on Tuesday.

After the number of clusters of Covid-19 cases in the country doubled yesterday, it has now dropped due to a new definition for clusters. Clusters have been redefined as requiring 10 or more linked cases, so there are now just seven in the country.

The largest cluster is linked to Auckland's Marist College and involves 50 people. The Matamata cluster continued to grow rapidly, adding nine cases over the last 24 hours. A cluster linked to a wedding in Bluff also more than doubled from eight to 24 cases.

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