Covid-19

Cold store cluster spreads to Waikato

New Zealand's first cluster of community cases of Covid-19 in months has now spread to the Waikato, Marc Daalder reports

Two new cases of Covid-19 associated with the community transmission cases identified on Tuesday have been found in the Waikato, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on Friday.

Previously, all active community cases in New Zealand were linked to the cold store cluster that plunged Auckland into Level 3 lockdown and were located in Auckland. While these new cases are also linked to the cluster, they were found in Tokoroa, which only has Level 2 restrictions in place.

One new case in Auckland has yet to be linked to any other cases, but is also the most recent to come to light, Bloomfield said. Contact tracing is in progress for this person to identify any potential links to the existing cluster. This is the only case who is in hospital.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said, despite the spread of the virus outside of Auckland, the news that no cases without a connection to the cluster had been found outside of Auckland was reassuring. The risk, he said, was low.

Bloomfield was similarly optimistic.

"The picture I think is a very good one. There is some heroic work happening out there," he said. He said he was hoping to be able to provide updated information on the unlinked case later in the day.

The Prime Minister is expected to make an announcement at 5:30 PM on Friday about any changes to the existing alert level arrangements, which have been in place since Wednesday.

In addition to the Tokoroa cases, 11 new cases linked to the cluster were reported in Auckland. That brings the country's total active case count to 48, 29 of which are part of the cluster. The remainder are the person in hospital and people who arrived in the country in recent days and are in managed isolation and quarantine.

Of the day's 13 new cases, 12 have been confirmed as having Covid-19 through testing and one is considered a probable case.

The Morrinsville rest home visited by two positive cases has yet to return a positive test. The resident who was visited has tested negative, and all other staff and residents have now been tested.

All new cases and some of their close contacts are being transferred to managed isolation and quarantine facilities, Bloomfield said. This change in policy was announced on Thursday.

The contact tracing system has been operating within prescribed guidelines, Bloomfield said. The goal for the system is to trace 80 percent of close contacts within 48 hours and Bloomfield said that, thus far, 83 percent of contacts are being traced within that period.

Bloomfield also said the testing system had ramped up significantly, with a record 15,703 tests processed on Thursday. This was partially achieved through shipping swabs to labs south of Auckland to be tested, because lab capacity was proving to be a constraint.

Pooled testing was also being performed, in which around eight samples were combined to be tested together to speed up the process. If a batch tests positive, the samples are then split out and individually tested to identify the correct swab.

"This is exactly the sort of pace that we had geared up for that we could undertake when the situation arose," he said.

Hipkins said the majority of "people-facing" border workers would have been tested by the end of the day. These people were classified as most at-risk, he said.

Some 500 workers at the Ports of Auckland were also being tested in the unlikely event that the infection entered New Zealand via cold storage from overseas. Many of the cases in the cluster worked at a cold storage import company.

The Government's contact tracing app, NZ COVID Tracer, has seen significant uptake in recent days. After the number of users increased by nearly 50 percent and the number of businesses that had printed out QR codes increased by more than 65 percent on Thursday, those figures have continued to skyrocket.

Over the past 24 hours, some 180,000 people have downloaded and registered the app, bringing the total number of users to 1.17 million. Another 20,000 posters have also been created, bringing the total to 171,000.

Bloomfield also reiterated a message he made on Thursday. "The virus is the problem, not people. People are the solution," he said. Health workers - especially those involved in testing - have been subjected to abuse, he said.

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