New Zealand races to track outbreak's origin as cases jump

By: News Desk      Published: 12:06 PM, 13 Aug, 2020
New Zealand races to track outbreak's origin as cases jump

New Zealand rushed to track the source of a sudden return of the coronavirus Thursday as the number of new cases in its biggest city rose to 17 and officials warned more infections were inevitable.

National health chief Ashley Bloomfield said there were 13 new confirmed infections in Auckland, all linked to four family members found on Tuesday, ending the country's record of 102 days without community transmission.

The surge in new cases raised the prospect that a three-day lockdown imposed in Auckland since midday Wednesday would be extended as teams of health workers hunted for the cluster's origin and ramped up testing in the city.

Bloomfield said among the new cases was a student at one of New Zealand's largest high schools, attended by more than 3,000 children.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there were likely to be more cases linked to the recent spike.

"As with our first outbreak, things will get worse before they get better," she said in a televised address.

Ardern was encouraged by the fact that all the cases so far were in a single cluster limited to Auckland.

"You can see the seriousness of the situation," she said.

"While it is serious, it is being dealt with in an urgent but calm and methodical way."

Bloomfield said authorities were urgently exploring all possible routes of transmission.

"We want to find out how large it is as soon as possible, so we've been testing all close contacts, casual contacts, workplace, family-related," he told TVNZ.

"This is what we want to do as quickly as possible to find out how extensive the outbreak is and who the first case might have been."

- Freight link 'unlikely' -

Auckland's lockdown is scheduled to end late Friday and Bloomfield said any decision on extending it depended on what the investigations uncovered over the next 24 hours.

"It's too early to say... we'll have a lot more information tomorrow," he said.

He played down one line of inquiry examining whether the virus was imported via freight, then picked up by a male member of the family, who worked in a cool room for imported goods.

"It's a possibility -- it's unlikely but it's something we need to rule out," Bloomfield said, adding that another focus was whether the infection came from managed isolation facilities.

These facilities, mainly hotels and motels that have been sealed off from the general public, house thousands of new arrivals from overseas, with positive cases placed in stricter quarantine.

Bloomfield said that COVID-19 cases found in the community, along with some at-risk family members, were now being moved into quarantine as well for the first time, rather than being allowed to self-isolate at home.

"It will help us prevent any further inadvertent spread in the community," he said.

Despite New Zealand's previous success in containing the virus -- with just 22 deaths in a population of five million -- Bloomfield said health authorities had always anticipated such a return, even if it had taken some people by surprise.

"Yes we were becoming complacent and that's why our message over the last few weeks has been around avoiding that," he said.

"As you'll recall, last week I was talking about when -- not if."

Australia records significant fall in cases

Australia's virus-hit Victoria state reported a major drop in new coronavirus cases Thursday, but officials warned against complacency amid a "worrying" spread of the disease in regional areas outside Melbourne.

Just 278 new cases and eight deaths were detected in Victoria Thursday -- a low not seen in weeks -- while a smaller outbreak in neighbouring New South Wales produced 12 additional cases and one death.

The surge in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria and Australia's second-biggest city, had pushed daily infection rates over 700 in recent weeks.

Dozens have died during a second wave that struck after Australia appeared to have the epidemic in check.

There are now signs that strict measures -- including an overnight curfew and shutdown of non-essential businesses -- are bringing the outbreak under control, but Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said authorities were "not getting in any way ahead of ourselves".

"We would just caution against any Victorian thinking that we aren't in the midst of a real marathon -- this is an endurance race and we need to stay the course on this," he told reporters.

"We need to be vigilant each and every day."

Andrews said health officials were launching a new testing blitz in three major regional towns -- Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo -- amid "worrying trends" indicating the virus could be spreading among residents.

All of regional Victoria is currently under Stage 3 rules, meaning their movement is restricted and wearing a mask is mandatory.

But deputy chief health officer Allen Cheng said authorities were looking "very closely" at whether to increase restrictions to match Melbourne's tough Stage 4 lockdown.

The state remains effectively sealed off from the rest of the country, with other regions so far largely spared from new infections.

Unemployment data released Thursday showed the easing of restrictions across most of Australia saw tens of thousands of people return to work, with the official jobless rate climbing just 0.1 percent to 7.5 percent.

However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics warned the impact of Melbourne's Stage 4 lockdown would not become clear until next month, when economic analysts expect a sharp dip in employment.

Overall, Australia has recorded more than 22,000 cases of COVID-19 and 361 deaths during the pandemic.

Peru reimposes Sunday curfews

Peru will re-impose a ban on people leaving their homes on Sundays and outlaw family parties, authorities said Wednesday as the nation reported a record number of new coronavirus cases.

Since the government started lifting containment measures on July 1, the number of new cases per day has more than doubled.

On Wednesday the government reported 8,875 infections, which surpassed the previous record set at the end of May.

"We have to take a step back in the measures we were relaxing," President Martin Vizcarra said. "From this Sunday the mandatory curfew will return on a national level."

The president blamed family social gatherings for "generating this spike in infections" and said they are now banned.

The Sunday curfew was briefly applied in April, a few weeks after Peru declared a health emergency.

Only people with special passes, like hospital workers, will be allowed out of their homes.

It has been six weeks since Peru began easing lockdown restrictions in a bid to reactivate its economy.

But the government has now also expanded the obligatory quarantine that had been lifted in 20 out of 25 regions since July 1.

Peru is the third-worst affected country in Latin America -- after Brazil and Mexico -- by the coronavirus pandemic with nearly half a million cases and more than 21,500 deaths.