COVID-19 media update, 28 May

News article

28 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

Today there are no new cases of COVID-19 to report in New Zealand.

Questions from journalists:

  • Is the Ministry working on a plan for pilots and flight attendants coming into the country?
  • Should crews be doing more when they are walking around foreign airports like LAX?
  • Why are we still looking at 4 weeks of Alert Level 2?
  • When is it going to be okay for businesses to get back to life as usual?
  • Why should staff continue staying at home in Alert Level 1?
  • What’s the official position on the use of masks on aircraft?
  • Is it eradication or elimination we are aiming for?
  • There are talks of plans to fast track the return of international students. Are there any concerns?
  • From a health perspective, where would cases in Australia need to be to look at a trans-Tasman bubble?
  • Does the same apply to the Pacific?
  • Would managed isolation be open to expanding beyond hotels to new venues?
  • Community transmission.
  • A reporter in managed isolation.
  • Are there any major concerns around larger gatherings?
  • Data around healthcare workers infected by COVID-19.
  • On the vaccine strategy, is forced vaccination on the horizon?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Kia ora koutou. Welcome to today's briefing.

Today, there are again no new cases of COVID-19 to report in New Zealand - our sixth day in a row without any new cases.

So the total remains at 1,154 confirmed cases. There are 12 additional recovered cases, and this total is now 1,474.

We only have eight remaining cases considered to be active.

I've also been asked to provide some comment today on the death of Eileen Hunter, a resident from St Margaret's Hospital and Rest Home in Tiatatou, Auckland. We're providing her name at request of her family.

Eileen was in her 90s, passed away on Sunday, and was much loved by all those who knew her. She was confirmed as having COVID-19 in mid-April and had been transferred from St Margaret's to Waitakere Hospital, and then to North Shore Hospital for care.

Once recovered, with two negative test results, she was transferred back to St Margaret's Rest Home.

The family has asked the ministry to pass on their thanks for the care of their mother at St Margaret's and at both Waitakere and North Shore hospitals, and in turn, I'd like to extend our sympathy to her family for the loss.

It's important to note that Eileen was regarded as having recovered from COVID-19 at the time of her death, and COVID-19 is not recorded as the primary cause of her death on her death certificate.

However, after consideration, we have decided to include Eileen's death in our overall tally of COVID-19-related deaths, consistent with our inclusive approach to date, so that we have got a good idea of the full impact of this condition on our health and wellbeing in New Zealand.

This means our total number of COVID-19-related deaths is now 22.

Again, today, there is nobody in hospital with COVID-19, and yesterday our laboratories completed 4,255 tests, and the total number of tests completed today - 271,690 to date.

An update on the NZ COVID Tracer app - it's now had 436,000 registrations. That's 14,000 more than yesterday.

Continue to encourage as many people as possible to download the app - it will help us identify, trace, and follow up anyone who may need to be followed up if they are a close contact of a case, should we get one.

I'd like to also recognise the work being done by businesses and thank them for their work in downloading the QR code. It is quite a process to register for a New Zealand business number - however, thank you - 18,500 posters are up now in New Zealand, making it easier for people to use our new app to keep a record of where they've been.

Just finally, some comments from the World Health Organization. Our numbers today reinforce that New Zealand continues to do well in its efforts against COVID-19, and we need to continue to work together to keep ourselves in that position. The WHO has reminded countries about the need to be careful when relaxing restrictions that have been in place around movement of people, including coming out of lockdown-type situations.

As the WHO has observed, epidemics tend to come in waves, and a second wave will continue to be a possibility in New Zealand for a number of months from now on.

So we need to continue the hard work we've all put in to ensure we continue to maintain our zero cases, uror00 going downward trajectory, and that we don't allow a second peak to occur. So, heading into the coming long weekend - stay safe and well.

I'm open to questions.

Media: Are you working on a plan for pilots and flight attendants coming into the country? There's been concerns raised that, seeing they don't go into quarantine, they could be a way for the virus to come in.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Yes, that is a risk, and there are very clear plans and guidelines around crew when they fly in, especially for Air New Zealand crew. We're working with airlines at ways to be able to strengthen that further. That is particularly for flights that go beyond Australia. So, flights out - at the moment, Air New Zealand has two flights to Asian destinations and one to Los Angeles. We're making sure the risk there is really low. Also, because we know airline crew are at that increased risk, they will be part of the surveillance testing that we will be doing around the airports and borders to help guarantee that we are keeping the border tight.

Media: Is there something like to see crews do more of when they're, say, walking around LAX before a plane?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Well, there is a very strict guidance for air crews about what they need to be doing, particularly in Los Angeles, both in going through the airport terminal and when they're in their accommodation over there to help ensure that they're keeping themselves safe and also that they're not carrying any risk of bringing COVID-19 back into New Zealand. And I think that's particularly the destination where we'd have the most concern about, and that's the one we're looking particularly at other measures we might need to put in place.

Media: With so many days with zero cases and so few active cases, can you reiterate why we're staring down the barrel of another four weeks at Alert Level 2 and whether there might be some room for movement if we have zero active cases, if we get to that point?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: As we've said before, this virus has a long tail. I think one could even say the announcement of a further death today from an infection that happened some time ago shows just how long the impact of this disease can be there.

We have also seen that some people are testing positive quite a long way after they might have originally been infected. So there's that aspect of it, but there's also the important aspect pillar of our elimination strategy - keeping it out at the border. We have been successful, to date, since going into Alert Level 3 and 2 - actually, since we started the lockdown - and we want to make sure that is all watertight, especially if we're contemplating opening up travel with Australia, which would be under a reciprocal no-quarantine-required basis. We're stepping through this. I think we've stepped into Level 3 and into Level 2 rapidly. We've increased the size of gatherings and, as I said yesterday, the work is continuing at pace on what Alert Level 1 might look like, and also our advice around when it would be appropriate to move to Alert Level 1.

Media: How confident are you, when Eileen was sent back to St Margaret's from hospital that she didn't have COVID?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: I'm confident, because the clinicians that sent her back were confident, and I have full confidence in their judgement. As well as the clinical judgement - there were negative tests as well.

Media: Whether is it going to be OK for businesses to get back to life as usual in the office? Some government departments have said they won't be back to full strength even under Level 1. Do you think government departments should be going back?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: They're safe to go back now.

Two issues are here. One is social distancing inside the office and work environment. That remains in place. That will be different in Alert Level 1, and we're working through that now.

The second issue is the experience that workplaces have had of working remotely, which is something that many workplaces have been doing at the margins, and now we've had a sort of forced experience of it through Alert Level 4 and workplaces have found, actually, it is both beneficial for staff and also for productivity, and so I think we'll find many workplaces - even when this is over - the workplace will be different.

 There will be people who are doing more remote working. And also less travel around, because we've now all become very proficient with the use of Zoom for meetings.

Media: Flexibility is one thing, and that's fantastic that people have that option. But if social distancing is no longer required into Level 1, why should government departments be telling people to stay home if they can?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Well, I can't pre-empt what government departments will be doing at Alert Level 1, but I can speak, say, for the Ministry of Health, where we've surveyed our staff and got very positive feedback on the arrangements that were put in place in Alert Level 4. Over 70% of staff would be happy to retain a mix of working both in the office and at home remotely. I think, again, it's less about a concern around safety of the workplace - I think all workplaces have been very focused on ensuring their staff are safe. But even as we move into Alert Level 1, I think we will see a change in the nature of work in that way.

Media: What's the official position on the use of face masks for air travel? And can you clarify - is it elimination, or eradication that we're aiming for?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: The advice around face masks for air travel is they are neither recommended nor required, but not discouraged. So, saying the international airline staff - as part of the precautions they take - they wear a face masks and gloves when they're in the main cabin and dealing with passengers. So, not required on flights either domestic or international. On the second issue, the strategy is elimination, and I think the differences here - really, eradication will be a global effort. It's very hard for New Zealand to say we're on a pathway to eradicate a virus that clearly is still incredibly prevalent and growing in prevalence offshore. We are very interested in opening up our borders more and more, and in that case - yes, elimination remains the strategy, because it's going to be a prolonged effort, and the vaccine, of course, will be part of that in due course.

Media: What will it take...

Media: There are talks of plans to fast-track the return of international students to New Zealand. Do you have any concerns about that, given that COVID is far from over in much of the rest of the world?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: I don't have particular concerns about international students more than I do -- any more than I would other groups coming, if we've got really tight processes around managed isolation and/or quarantine when they come. Coupled with appropriate exit measures from where they come from. Note here, the significance of the zero cases here is not just that we've got no cases onshore, but we're not seeing any coming through the border, which suggests that measures that are in place in the countries where people are coming from are also good. So we're not importing infections into the country.

Media: On the trans-Tasman bubble, from a health perspective, obviously the sort of final discussion will remain with Cabinet, but from a health perspective, where would cases in Australia need to be for you to be comfortable with us opening the borders? They've had more than 100 in the past two weeks, for example, whereas we've had five or something like that. You know, where do you draw the line?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: So I think, from a number-of-cases perspective - well, from a health perspective, there are two relevant things here. One is the cases and the pattern of cases and whether there is evidence of community transmission where it's not clear where they've come from. That would be a concern. We'll be looking at that. Then, of course, there is the full pathway of people coming across the Tasman and going back and making sure that any risks could be managed there. Both countries will be interested in that. But again, I think the key thing we'll be looking at in Australia is - where are the cases, and can they be explained? And those are the things that will be influencing decisions inside Australia pout travel between states as well, I would imagine. So I think we will see, once there is a degree of comfort with travel between states in Australia, then it may well be they feel they are ready - I can't pre-empt the decision by the Australian leadership - they are ready for that trans-Tasman arrangement.

Media: Does the same apply for the Pacific? What would it take for the Health Ministry to include the Pacific in the bubble?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: We will give advice around that if asked. My own view is that - again, the risks can be managed well, especially if we've got countries that have got good testing in place and we know that they haven't got any cases and that the arrangements can be put in place for travel to and fro. I think that many Pacific countries will be interested in seeing if an arrangement can be put in place, because their economies are so reliant on tourism. So the Pacific is, I think, has always been a focus of our efforts in response to COVID-19, and in terms of opening up travel, but I haven't received specific advice on that yet.

Media: Did you see a letter yesterday where they will be offering the government residents' homes as an option for quarantine and mandatory isolation of incoming international students - would you be open to expanding those systems beyond hotels to new venues?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Yes, the venue is one thing. It's the incredible arrangements that are in place, and having visited one of the hotels in Auckland last Friday, it's quite a complex operation - 24/7 health oversight, security, the way food is prepared and delivered, the arrangements to ensure people can get out for physical activity, making sure the wellbeing of those people in the hotels or, in this case, in student halls, was being looked after. So, if an accommodation block is appropriate, that's fine. But it's really the ability to stand up all those services around it. And just a reminder that, at its height in Auckland, there were over 500 people involved in those arrangements. It's still somewhere between 300 and 400 people to provide that full range of services across the 12 hotels there in Auckland at the moment.

Media: Do you know when was the last case we had - when was the last time we had a case of community transmission?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: In the first part of April, having gone back and looked at all the cases - in particular, those ones where it was not entirely clear exactly where the transmission, or where the person may have been infected.

Media: I'm interested to know what feedback the Ministry of Health got from the Prime Minister around her early-movers initiative with world leaders last night - whether anything of interest came out for the ministry.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: I haven't actually followed up or had any feedback yet from the Prime Minister, but I'll be interested to see what that is. But the PM herself may well speak about that.

Media: Apologies if you were asked about this yesterday, but we have a reporter who is usually a correspondent in Australia who's in managed isolation in Auckland at the moment, and he says he was rung by Healthline three separate times telling him that they lost his information and it was due to a technical issue. Is this something that you've heard about, or is it a common problem that you're aware of?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: No, it's not something I've heard about, so I'm happy to look into that. The hotel I visited, which was managed isolation, one of the ones in the Auckland CBD - actually the health checks there - and I imagine it's the same, that the daily health checks are done by nursing staff who are actually on site - I met the group of nurses at the hotel I visited, and they do either phone calls to people in their rooms, or they see them personally - they've got a special area set up for that each day. So I'm not quite sure what the Healthline issue was there, but I'm happy to look into that.

Media: They were saying that they didn't know when he'd arrived in New Zealand, where he'd come from, what hotel he was in, or how much longer he'd be there for.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: And he's there at the moment, is he?

Media: Yeah.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: OK. We can check that.

Media: Tomorrow, the country can have major gatherings of up to 100. Are there any concerns that you have that we go that extra step?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: No concerns. That was our advice. I'm also confident that New Zealanders will keep following the precautions and expectations of them, including registering and just looking after each other, whether it's in a public venue or at home in a private setting, or at a special occasion like a wedding or funeral. We've still got to keep keeping each other safe, and I encourage people to do that. Any final questions?

Media: I've asked the Ministry of Health to provide data of healthcare workers infected in their workplace. They haven't been able to do that. Is that good enough, given it's a work-safe issue?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: There's data already on our website around healthcare workers and the proportion that have been infected either in their workplace, in a healthcare setting, or in other settings. So I'm not sure if you were looking for detailed data on every healthcare worker. I'm not sure we would have that level of detail available. But I'm happy to follow up your inquiry.

Media: Isn't that something that should be available, given it is a health and safety issue? If someone is infected with a deadly virus in their workplace and they say -- they've told me they don't have the data on the number of healthcare workers affected in that healthcare setting?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: That surprises me because, I think for about a month - probably a month ago, I started to talk about the number of healthcare workers, broke them down by groups, and also what the place of likely infection was. So let me just check that, and if those data haven't been updated, we'll make sure they are. Final question?

Media: On the vaccine strategy, there's been am concern raised - including by a Member of Parliament - that there would be some level of forced vaccinations for COVID-19. Can you address this?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield: Ahh... Yes, people may have raised it as a concern. It's not something that's in our thinking, because I don't think we will need to force people to be vaccinated against COVID-19. And I imagine that everybody - just as they have in our efforts to date - will be keen to ensure that both they and their families are protected, and also that they are contributing to our wider community and that they are protecting others - particularly vulnerable New Zealanders, who would not do well if COVID-19 was still circulating in the community. I think we'll cross that bridge when we get to it, but I'd be very surprised if New Zealanders didn't get right behind the effort to make vaccines available and they can get one.

OK, thank you very much. Appreciate it. Have a good long weekend.

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