Minister confident of ‘putting a ring’ around cluster

New Zealand reports seven new positive cases of Covid-19 but all are likely to be linked to an existing cluster, giving officials confidence of containment

Health Minister Chris Hipkins says the 37 current Covid-19 cases represent just 0.07 percent of people tested, and point towards this being a 'contained outbreak'.

Today's seven new cases are made up of six linked to the family cluster that became known this week, and one involving a close contact which is still under investigation. As well as the 37 community cases there are 19 active 'imported' cases in quarantine.

The community outbreak has forced the Government to put Auckland into Level 3 lockdown and the rest of the country into Level 2 restrictions until August 26. Genome sequencing has found no link to previous confirmed cases at isolation and quarantine, or to previous cases in New Zealand.

Officials continue to investigate possible freight links to the Americold coolstore, where one of the first Covid patients worked and six positive tests have been returned, and at the ports of Auckland and Tauranga. They will also cross-check results against an Americold facility in Victoria, Australia, a state where a large outbreak has occurred.

Hipkins told today's Covid-19 media conference the fact 36, and probably all 37, of the cases found this week are linked to the same cluster meant that "as long as that remains... we can be confident we can put a ring around the cases."

Members of the family at the centre of the outbreak had visited three North Island towns as well as a resthome in Morrinsville. Testing of close contacts of two linked positive cases in Tokoroa had come back negative for the virus and tests on staff and residents at the Kingswood rest home in Morrinsville, likewise.

Hipkins said: "We have also not seen any positive results from the border and Managed Isolation and Quarantine, and genome sequencing does not match any of the known cases in these facilities."

Testing soared to 23,846 on Friday nationwide, taking the total since August 12 to 49,780 and the total since tests began early in the year to 548,260. "That's a phenomenal effort," Hipkins said.

The 37 cases represented 0.07 percent of all tests undertaken, "pointing towards a contained outbreak."

Both the minister, and the Director General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, praised testing staff, noting a laboratory capacity of 12,000 to 13,000 a day had surged more rapidly than over the four to six weeks that had been envisaged. 

On the issue of testing of border staff, Hipkins had expressed his disappointment on the Newshub Nation programme on Saturday morning that just 60 percent of those working at the quarantine hotel, the Jet Park Inn, had been tested. 

At the media briefing he said that would be investigated "in due course" but all focus needed to be kept now on responding to the current outbreak.

"Yes, I have said it is frustrating that we were not getting the testing at the Jet Park Inn we expected to be happening. But everyone needs to be focused forward."

Bloomfield was asked if he was 'fed up' with his expectations on border testing not being met and, later, if he had considered resigning over the issue. 

"I do not think there have been failures of our testing system in this country. This country has the highest rate of testing per confirmed cases in the world. The testing has been key to our response. It is a complex process, testing across a whole range of sites.

"I would have liked it to roll out quicker. It did not. But it sure is now."

When Hipkins was asked if he would apologise and take responsibility for the border testing issues, he said: "I absolutely accept responsibility for it. It has been a huge area of focus for me since becoming minister and I've left no stone unturned in that regard. What's really important is that we look forwards. I will fully accept responsibility for my part in this equation."

Bloomfield confirmed a person who had tested positive and on Friday was listed as probably linked to the current cluster was a Mt Wellington general practitioner. About 200 patients the doctor had seen at his clinic in the days before showing signs of infection were being followed up by health officials. "He was not symptomatic when he was last practising there."

The director general issued a health order on Friday requiring infected people to move to quarantine. There has been criticism that because that decision was made as a result of this cluster, where 50 percent of those affected are Pasifika and 30 percent Māori, that could be seen as racist.

Hipkins said: "Everybody is being treated the same regardless of ethnicity. No ethnicity should feel targeted here. Yes, I understand that that has been an anxiety but I want to reiterate... that everybody is being treated the same."

Bloomfield said the reason quarantine was being required now was to stop "onward infections" within homes. "Jet Park has very good arrangements that allow these families to be looked after separately but to be kept close."

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