Coronavirus: New Zealand will likely see more cases, say experts

Scientists say New Zealand will likely see more cases of coronavirus, but our cities’ large urban sprawl could help slow the spread of the illness, compared to other countries. 

On Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that tests had confirmed suspicions that a patient in Auckland City Hospital had the illness.

University of Otago professor of public health Michael Baker said while the positive result – in a Kiwi citizen in their 60s who had travelled from Iran – was a “significant milestone”, it wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Health authorities had previously warned that the virus would almost certainly reach New Zealand.

The Ministry of Health on Friday said that, while the chances of community outbreak from this first case remain low, there is a “high likelihood of sporadic cases.”

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Family members of the person who was diagnosed have also been isolated and people who were on the same flight are being contacted.

Baker said the fact that the person had travelled into New Zealand recently was a good sign.

“It actually shows that the systems are working very well. There’s absolutely no reason to be alarmed by this event on its own.”

A woman wears a face mask near Auckland City Hospital, where New Zealand's first coronavirus case is being treated.

Abigail Dougherty

A woman wears a face mask near Auckland City Hospital, where New Zealand’s first coronavirus case is being treated.

However, if a case popped up in a rural community and the person had not travelled recently, that could be cause for more concern as it would indicate there had been “community transmission”.

The government’s response had now moved from trying to keep coronavirus out to managing it, Baker said.

The next steps would include informing people how to reduce their risk of infection and “social distancing” – limiting contact with others by working from home, avoiding public transport and cancelling public gatherings.

Cases of the virus are expected to reach pandemic levels as it continues to spread around the world, despite many countries, including New Zealand, implementing travel bans from nations worst hit by the illness. 

More than 82,000 people have been diagnosed with novel coronavirus so far.

While some experts have estimated that up to 40 per cent of the global population will contract the virus, Baker said New Zealanders need not panic.

“The good news is for most people it’s a mild illness.” 

However, that meant that it was difficult to diagnose everyone who had it because many had few symptoms.

People are wearing masks outside Auckland City Hospital after a case of coronavirus was confirmed there.

Abigail Dougherty

People are wearing masks outside Auckland City Hospital after a case of coronavirus was confirmed there.

Baker said that Australia and New Zealand had a “huge opportunity” to slow the spread of coronavirus, partly because of our low population density.

Auckland’s urban sprawl – for which the city was sometimes criticised – was an advantage in this instance.

However, New Zealand’s main advantage was that it has time on its side to “get our systems organised”.

That had not been the case in Wuhan – the Chinese city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

“New Zealand is fairly well placed [to manage coronavirus] because it’s inclusive and community minded,” Baker said.

He recommended Kiwis get prepared by talking to their family, colleagues, schools and neighbours about what an pandemic would mean and what they would do.

People should also start checking on more vulnerable members of their community, such as older people or those who are already unwell.

University of Otago’s Webster Family Chair in Viral Pathogenesis, professor Miguel Quiñones-Mateu, agreed with Baker that New Zealand was well prepared.

“Everything is in place to control, try to minimise, potential local infections with this highly transmissible virus.

“Transparency, open communication, and continued monitoring are the best way to deal with this epidemic,” he said.

While people needed to continue with their daily lives, Quiñones-Mateu advised paying extra attention to hygiene.

He said washing their hands often using soap and water for at least 20 seconds and using hand sanitiser when soap and water was not available was the best way for people to stay healthy.

People should also never touch their face with unwashed hands, he said.

Healthline’s dedicated coronavirus number, 0800 358 5453, is free and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.