COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) questions and answers

This page was last updated 7 April 2020.

What is COVID-19 (novel coronavirus)?

Recently, an outbreak of a new coronavirus disease now called COVID-19 (sometimes called novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV) was identified. Coronaviruses are a large and diverse family of viruses which cause illnesses such as the common cold. The most recent diseases caused by coronaviruses include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

On 7 January 2020, Chinese authorities confirmed the identification of a new type of coronavirus now called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, formerly known as 2019-nCoV). SARS-CoV-2 has not previously been detected in humans or animals. Laboratory testing ruled out other respiratory pathogens such as influenza, avian influenza, adenovirus, and the SARS and MERS coronaviruses.

Where did COVID-19 come from?

COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. It has since been reported in other provinces and in other countries. The latest information on this is available on the World Health Organization website.

We don’t know yet how COVID-19 is transmitted to people, but it’s likely that it comes from an animal. A live animal market called the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan City is suspected as the original source of COVID-19, but this has not been confirmed. Many initial cases involved people who worked at or were handlers and frequent visitors to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market has been temporarily closed to carry out environmental sanitation and disinfection.

What are the signs and symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to a range of other illnesses such as influenza and do not necessarily mean that you have COVID-19. Symptoms include:

  • sore throat
  • sneezing and runny nose
  • temporary loss of smell
  • fever
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing.

Difficulty breathing is a sign of possible pneumonia and requires immediate medical attention.

If you have these symptoms and have recently been overseas, or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with COVID-19, please contact Healthline (for free) on 0800 358 5453 (or +64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) immediately.

How does COVID-19 spread?

Like the flu, COVID-19 can be transmitted from person to person. The scientific evidence confirms that COVID-19 is spread by droplets. This means that when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, they may generate droplets containing the virus. These droplets are too large to stay in the air for long, so they quickly settle on surrounding surfaces.

COVID-19 is mostly spread because of contact with people with the virus who have symptoms. However, it can also be spread before symptoms appear:

Droplet-spread diseases can be spread by:

  • coughing and sneezing
  • close personal contact
  • contact with an object or surface with viral particles on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

That's why it's really important to practice good hygiene, regularly wash and thoroughly dry your hands and practice good cough etiquette.

How do I protect myself and others from COVID-19?

You should always practice good hygiene by:

  • covering coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues
  • washing hands for at least 20 seconds with water and soap and drying them thoroughly:
    • before eating or handling food
    • after using the toilet
    • after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose or wiping children’s noses
    • after caring for sick people.

People with symptoms of acute respiratory infection should practice good cough etiquette (maintain distance, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues, and wash hands). If you have concerns, you can contact the dedicated COVID-19 Healthline for free on 0800 358 5453

What should I do if I am immune-compromised or have immune-compromised children or whānau?

People with underlying medical conditions, such as a compromised immune system, liver disease, cancer, kidney disease, heart disease and diabetes mellitus, need to take more precautions to protect themselves against all infections, including COVID-19.

While New Zealand currently has no evidence of sustained person-to-person transmission in our communities, we recommend people take the following simple steps to protect yourself and others:

  • Avoid close contact with people with cold or flu-like illnesses.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing.
  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with water and soap and dry them thoroughly:  
    • before eating or handling food
    • after using the toilet
    • after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose or wiping children’s noses
    • after caring for sick people. 

Additional measures that you and your whānau and friends can take include:

  • If you are immune-compromised, avoid staying with a person who is self-isolating (because they are a close contact of a confirmed case of COVID-19 or have recently travelled overseas.)
  • You should stay at least 1 metre away from people who are unwell, if you are immune-compromised.
  • It's also important that everyone helps to protect the safety of immunocompromised people living in our community. For example, if you’re unwell, avoid contact with someone who is immune-compromised.
  • We recommend checking safe travel advice about COVID-19 if you plan overseas travel.
  • At this time, it wouldn’t make sense for someone who is immune-compromised to wear a mask when in public to decrease risk for catching COVID-19. However, if your health care provider advises you to wear a mask when in public areas because you have a particularly vulnerable immune system, follow that advice. 
  • If you are taking immunosuppressive drugs we advise that you do not stop this medication without first consulting your GP or specialist.

What should I do if I am in active cancer treatment?

See the Cancer Control Agency for more information.

Can I access health care outside my local area at Alert Level 4?

While New Zealand is at Alert Level 4, health reasons are classed as essential travel. Some people have specific health needs which can’t be addressed within their local area, for instance specialist care.

If you need to access medical care outside of your local area during Alert Level 4, and your clinician has assessed that this is appropriate, you are able to do so. Both you as the patient and the clinician should consider alternatives like telehealth and virtual consultations to limit the need for travel if possible, or deferring treatment if appropriate.

You should carry a letter from your hospital confirming the appointment or treatment to demonstrate your need to travel domestically for essential medical care if you are asked.

Support people

Normally there are no restrictions on the number of people that can travel with you (at their own cost) when you need to travel for medical treatment.

However, given the intent under Alert Level 4 is to limit the movement of people, while we are at this alert level only one support person (from your existing bubble) may travel with you when you receive medical treatment. In some cases such as for pregnant women you may be entitled to up to two support people. The following conditions must be met in order for a support person to travel with you:

•    you (the patient) are under 18 years of age, or
•    your clinician recommends that you have a support person to assist with clinical decision-making or provide physical support.

You should consider if your support person needs to be with you or can support you remotely via telephone, web chat services or other means.

Whenever travelling please be aware of the applicable advice regarding public health and safety – see Health advice for the general public – and protect your bubble while travelling.

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