COVID-19 media update, 26 May

News article

26 May 2020

The Ministry of Health provided an update on the COVID-19 response at 1.00 pm today.

Speaker:

  • Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield

View the livestream video below


Summary

Once again, there are no new cases of COVID-19 to report in New Zealand today.

Questions from journalists:

  • How is New Zealand looking at a vaccine?
  • How long could a vaccine take?
  • When will see community sports return?
  • When will vaccines development be further looked at?
  • Should we be extending the period of quarantining people entering the country?
  • Technical issues with the app
  • Heading into winder, should we be concerned about a rise in COVID-19 cases?
  • Flu vaccines 
  • What was the biggest challenge of the response?
  • Exemptions and health advice
  • Rheumatic Fever 
  • Further testing 
     

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Kia ora koutou katoa. Talofa lava.

Welcome to today's briefing and thank you to those who have made the trip here to a new venue. Some familiar faces from recent weeks and some familiar faces from, perhaps, a month or two back, but nice to see you all here today.

Once again, there are no new cases of COVID-19 to report in New Zealand.

Our total number of confirmed cases, therefore, remains at 1,154 and we will continue to report that number to the World Health Organization, and our combined total of confirmed and probable cases is 1,504.

Our total number of recovered cases is now 1,461, and we have only 22 active cases still in New Zealand.

There are no additional deaths to report and there is just one person still in hospital and that person does not require intensive care treatment.

Yesterday, our labs processed 1,841 tests.

We usually see a lower number on Sunday and Monday, and so that's what's coming through there. And to date, the grand total is 263,156.

Word or two on the New Zealand tracer... COVID tracer app. So the app has now recorded 405,000 registrations, an increase of 25,000 since this time yesterday. So the numbers continue to increase daily and I continue to encourage as many Kiwis as possible to download the app, even if the functionality at this point is still relatively limited. Just by registering, it means that we have securely held your updated contact details in case we need to contact you only for the purposes of tracing, if you are potentially, or have been, exposed to a case.

There are now 15,500QR posters that have been downloaded and displayed by businesses and that represents about a quarter of what we call active businesses - that is the ones that people are likely to be visiting like retail settings or hospitality venues.

We're continuing to make good progress under Alert Level 2 and today's case number of 0 again confirms that. Our case numbers are low, obviously our recovery rate is now high and we have only one person still requiring hospital-level care.

So the hard work put in by New Zealanders to this point means that yesterday was Government was able to announce the extension of the maximum group number size from 10 up to 100, taking effect from midday on Friday this week.

So as of then, or from then, many of the activities that people have been looking forward to enjoying in larger groups, such as church and faith-based gatherings, as well as family events and weddings, will be able to take place. So with the exception of larger more significant events like large sporting fixtures and concerts and the like, it means that most normal or everyday activities are now possible in some form under Alert Level 2.

Some people are asking how quickly we might move to Alert Level 1 and whether we should be aiming to get there sooner than the 4-week period signalled by the Prime Minister yesterday. I think it's important to keep in perspective that New Zealand is already moving through the alert levels and relaxing its restrictions more quickly than other countries, including our nearest neighbour, Australia.

We are acutely aware that under the Alert Level 2 restrictions, there are still constraints on some businesses and on everybody's daily lives and we want to be careful to get the balance right. We are working hard already to lay out the detail of what Alert Level 1 might look like, so that we can move there as soon as it is safe to do so.

Moving on to vaccines, I understand a Ministerial announcement is being made presently on New Zealand's COVID-19 vaccine strategy, and the Ministry of Health played a role in developing this up. It aims to secure a vaccine that is safe and effective for New Zealanders at the earliest possible time.

Obviously, the development of such a vaccine will be a key tool, not just in our efforts to control COVID-19, but in global efforts. The strategy is designed to ensure that New Zealand contributes to both the research and discovery of a vaccine and its development, but also testing and then the supply. All these elements are covered in the strategy. It enables our scientists to contribute to and be linked into global research efforts and will ensure that we are active participants in all the process of developing a vaccine, including opportunities for onshore production, should those be required. More information on the vaccine strategy will be available on the website.

Just an update on quarantine and managed isolation. You may have heard yesterday that we welcomed our 10,000th person into managed isolation or quarantine in Auckland. So far, around 8,000 New Zealanders and others have completed their stay in Auckland and Christchurch and have returned to their homes here in New Zealand.

Their commitment to managed isolation is a commitment that we will continue to and that will support the health and safety of all New Zealanders as part of our overall COVID-19 approach.

Let's be clear here - the border is our riskiest area and it is critical, a critical part of the government's overall elimination strategy and this is especially now that we feel confident we have broken the chain of domestic transmission. We do not want to put the good progress we have made in jeopardy and we know that international arrivals are essentially the potential source of new infections in Aotearoa.

However, we have also been very mindful of the advice from a recent High Court ruling and the need to consider all requests for an exemption from that process of quarantine or managed self-isolation to consider those all very carefully, and we do this with great care and as quickly as possible.

A number of exemptions have now been granted and every exemption is looked at on its merits. However, every exemption to that very tight border process does create risk and they are therefore only granted in exceptional circumstances.

I'm happy to take questions.

Media: How important is a successful vaccine to New Zealand's COVID-19 response?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Well, it's successful for our response and for the global response. Clearly this is a virus that is having a big impact globally. We have managed to head off at having a significant impact here in New Zealand. We only need to look at countries like, or jurisdictions like the UK - and I made a comparison in an interview this morning. If we were the UK, we would have had between 3,000 and 3,500 deaths to date. Yesterday, we would have reported 250 cases, new cases and we would still be in lockdown. That's proportionate by population. So a vaccine and/or effective treatments are critical in both our efforts and global efforts, not just to control COVID-19, but to be able to open up, particularly open up our borders.

Media: How long do you think it will take to develop a vaccine?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Well, I'm guided by the best estimates of scientists who know this area and in the 12- to 18-month period that is generally quoted would be an exceedingly rapid amount of time to get a vaccine safely developed, manufactured and available to the population.

Media: What do - two questions. What would you say to reports that have been circulate being a vaccine by September? And my other question is around community sports. When do you think we might be able to see people in the stands if they're distant?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Yes, I have heard reports, or a report, of a vaccine available by September. I'm sure we will be... We would welcome a vaccine if it was available by September. I just don't think that presents enough time to safely develop, test and then manufacture a vaccine. All the best estimates are that it's going to be longer than that and with the group size going to 100, yes, community sport will be available but those larger sporting events with more than 100 people attending, as with any other event, will be once we move into Alert Level 1, recalling that the Prime Minister did say yesterday that on 8 June Cabinet would once again review the Alert Level 2 settings and look at the data and look at the number of cases and what was happening at the border, just to check that all the settings look right and whether there was any opportunity, in fact, to further ease.

Media: If you're at, like, a local rugby game, can you go and watch but socially distance? Say you're standing around a field? Or is it just games without spectators?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: As long as the group size at any event is no more than 100 and likewise we would ask and expect organisers to know who is at the game. If the game is between two teams they will know who is there, who is playing and they should be keeping a record of attending these sorts of events and people should keep their own record.

Media: People have been asking for support from the government in terms of the vaccine for weeks if not months. Has that come too late tour scientists?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: That's been money made available prior to today and the money announced today, both for onshore efforts and to support global efforts, I think is a significant contribution and it will support both basic research here, but also create the opportunity to look at how we might scale up actual production of a vaccine if required.

Media: To follow up on that, when a vaccine is available and able to be distributed within New Zealand, has the Ministry of Health started looking at the stage-4 of vaccine development, which is surveillance. Is there a plan for that?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Surveillance?

Media: Like monitoring the vaccine and people.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Well, there are a number of phases of vaccine-testing, and, yes, New Zealand... This is part of the vaccine strategy, is New Zealand will be able to contribute to global efforts, at each of the phases, if it looks like a useful setting to do it in. And I think there will be some interest in New Zealand, because we've had such low rates of infection here so we won't have a level of possible immunity from people who have previously been infected so yes, New Zealand will be interested in participating in all aspects of vaccine development.

Media: There's $5 million in the package for potentially manufacturing a vaccine in New Zealand. What stars need to align for us to be able to manufacture a vaccine that may have been originally developed elsewhere within New Zealand?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: If we were to manufacture here in New Zealand, obviously, we would need to have the sort of technical and production capability to do that. But it would be done under a licensing arrangement and would require, sort of, the core components of the vaccine to be provided from offshore that we would then be able to combine and put into the doses required here. So it will require a high degree of international collaboration, which is exactly what's been signalled in the vaccine strategy.

Media: Which vaccine currently under development do you hold the most hope for?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: I don't have a preference. I understand there are upwards of 100 vaccines currently in development and those fall into a range of category depending on the type of technology used and I don't... I think what our vaccine strategy lays out is that we're not... We haven't got all our irons in one fire. We've actually got them spread and that we will be supporting not just efforts to create a vaccine for New Zealand, but also supporting ac-Taliban access to a vaccine, particularly for our Pacific neighbours.

Media: What's a realistic time frame for a vaccine? You said 12 to 18 months was optimistic. What should the public expect?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: 12 to 18 months is what everyone is looking at now but we're all watching with interest. What is also clear - and this has been said by a number of global leaders - is there a huge resource and focus going onto this and we've seen in crises before how if you combine - and particularly if countries combine - both technology and brain power, you can make rapid advances. So we would all hope that it was within 12 to 18 months. If it's sooner, that would be, I would think, a bonus, but we should not expect anything before 12 to 18 months.

Media: On the border, should we be looking at toughening up any areas there? Yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke about some people having symptoms of COVID-19 four weeks after coming into the country. Should we be maybe extending the period of time we're quarantining people for? Or is there any work you're looking at in this area?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: So two comments there. We will stick with the 14-day quarantine period and that's effectively the gold standard globally. It's used throughout the world. And related to that are people who are testing positive some weeks after they've had symptoms and probably when they were infected and in a number of those people, they've had negative tests previously. What seems to be clear from studies done in Singapore and South Korea is that whilst they still test positive because they have residual virus or viral fragments, they don't appear to be infectious and that's the important thing. The second comment is the area we're particularly looking at is international airline crew and making sure that we are really tight around that and partly that is to make sure we are in close alignment with Australia so that we can look at that possibility of a trans-Tasman bubble.

Media: I appreciate it's some way into the future, but have you thought about the rollout of a potential vaccine? Would it mirror flu vaccine rollouts that we've seen in New Zealand? Like with elderly and health care workers first?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: We're starting to think about that. The obvious goal here would be to vaccinate as many people as possible in the country and as quickly as possible. So we would... This would be a bespoke effort. We wouldn't just use the usual channels we use for vaccinating and we will stand up a strategy. I would imagine we will train a particular workforce. Perhaps the analogy is like like an election or census, where a specific workforce is brought together and trained so that it can be done in a very short space of time so we're already starting to think about that.

Media: With tactical issues with the official app, people are still having them and people are saying that when they... An invalid code comes up every time they try to use the QR corrode. Is there work being done to fix it? Are there concerns about it not working?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Every report we get of it not working we loo into, whether it relates to problems they've got with loading the app, registering or use of the app and if there's a problem with the QR code, we will look into those. And there are various channels for providing feedback and I know people are using them because I've seen some of the feedback, including emails directly to me and they're all looked at. We will fix any bugs in the system. If people can persevere - and again to reiterate, even by registering, people are giving theiring, and only the Ministry of Health, their updated details, which is helpful in terms of rapidly being able to contact them should we need to.

Media: Heading into winter, are you concerned about a potential rise in COVID cases? And at what point do we stop testing every sniffle?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: So I'm not concerned about a rise in COVID cases, if we can maintain a really strong border barrier. It seems very clear that we have broken the train of transmission in the community here, although we are continuing to test people with symptoms and we have, on 22 May, updated our case definition and it's still very much focused on testing people with a wide range of respiratory symptoms. And in particular because the prevalence of those at the moment is very low because we've sort of broken the chain of transmission of all of those infections. We will keep reviewing that definition as we go into winter, but the analogy I've heard made here is it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack and you want to find every needle and we will keep doing that. It's a critical part of our being able to stay on top of this.

Media: We're washing our hands more. We're practising social distancing. What's the expectation of this flu season? Have we all had jabs we might not have needed because we're being so cautious about germs at the moment.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: I'd encourage people to still have a flu jab. We've got plenty more. We've got a few in of Northern Hemisphere vaccine. I don't think we can be too... We can't overdo this. Yes, by all the physical distancing and other hygiene measures, people will be protecting themselves not just from respiratory infections, but from a range of infections including gastroenteritis and so on and that's a good thing. The flu jab will help in prevent the transmission-of-flu in our communities and protect individuals.

Media: It's been about three months since we had our first COVID-19 case, but it feels like much longer. Looking back, what do you think were some of the biggest challenges? What are you most proud of as well?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: The biggest challenge was the classic challenge of these situations which is complete information. It's hard to recall now just how little we knew in those early days and how much we had to base decisions on not just advice we're getting from our scien advisers and our public health professionals, but also a very small number of studies that were initially just coming out of Wuhan and we're fortunate that we have reports from advisers around the world. The biggest challenge was it's lack was information. We know so much more now than we did then. Even take one area, around pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic transmission. That was a big challenge. The thing I'm most proud of actually, and which stunned me, is the extent to which all New Zealanders did what was asked of them in Alert Level 4 and our success now, the fact that we had just two weeks in Alert Level 3 and we're less than two weeks into Alert Level 2 and already people are impatient to get to Alert Level 1 is phenomenal and actually that was because of the extent to which New Zealanders trusted the decisions that had been taken and then put there, you know, put their shoulders to the wheel behind it and so we've now been able to reap the benefits of that.

Media: On the border, the Government has the ability to waive the requirements on the New Zealand citizen in order to come in, and they go through isolation, as with the German pipe experts that came through, is that something - are those decisions something that the Ministry of Health provides health advice on for each of them?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Yes, we do. We play a role. In fact I sign off on every one of those decisions and a very, very small number of people have been approved. I think that's one example - maybe that one and one other for specific people who... Actually, no, there's someone who has come in to do checks on and make sure that X-ray equipment is working in our about eight of our district health boards. That's an exception there but at the moment very small numbers of those. Perhaps a last couple of questions.

Media: On the rheumatic fever, we've seen a bit of a spike recently in cases. What do you put that down to? And how concerning is that for you?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: This is interesting because it's only in a couple of regions of the country - here in the greater Wellington region, Hutt and Wellington and the Bay of Plenty and Lakes district, where they've seen an increase in a period where they usually might have seen between two and four cases, they've seen eight or nine, about but if you compare, say, with Auckland, which generally has our highest number of any region, they've got an identical number of cases to what they had in the same period last year. So what's interesting is why this is only happening in one or two regions. It suggests that it may well just be because of random fluctuations which you can get when you've got low numbers. Another thing that's interesting here is we've seen a big drop in meningococcal infections over the same period and probably, again, due to the unique circumstances of the lockdown, where there was not transmission of these sorts of infections between people.

Media: On the weak positives that some of the tests have returned, could it be that they are antibodies which are coming up in those tests? You know, had the virus, a weak strain, and now they're testing positive?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: The test we're using, the PCR test, is not an antibody test. It won't find antibodies. The test for antibodies is a blood test and you then find the antibodies in someone's serum. The weak positive test just probably means that the sample has only got a small amount of the virus. I haven't had one of these swabs but I know it's unpleasant and part of that is it has to almost be a little bit painful because they have to actually take some cells from the back of the nasopharynx because the virus is inside the cell. So generally a weak positive means they've got perhaps a very small sample or not quite a good enough sample and those will then be followed up with another test just to confirm what the result is.

Media: Doctors have been telling One News that because of the COVID-19 response, they worry that the rheumatic fever issue is kind of slipped under the radar. What do you say to that?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: It hasn't slipped under the radar. In fact, we've been... Sort of had the radar on about rheumatic fever for probably at least 6 to 8 weeks now and been working with primary care to make sure that... What we were worried about was people coming in with a sore throat, especially children, into be for covered 19 but not having the right swab and assessment in case it was strep throat, which leads to rheumatic fever. So I think there has been a high level of awareness again and again, those increases have only been seen in a couple of regions, so not across the country. We just encourage you all, you know, anyone with a sore throat, particularly a child, they do need to be clinically assessed and if they are seen and they require referral, they will be referred for both further assessment and treatment at a GP. Last question.

Media: Would you consider putting the strep or romantic fever rheumatic fever swab in so you could check the child for both to keep on top of both the COVID-19 virus and the rheumatic fever?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: It's an option but there needs to be a clinical treatment too. These swabs can be done at a pharmacist. We've previously had pharmacists doing the swabs in some areas of the country. In some places, rather than swabbing, you can treat it empirically, giving antibiotics on the basis of clinical history thank will continue. Certainly rheumatic fever is something we want to keep right on top of. OK. Thank you very much and hopefully we'll see you again tomorrow.

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