WELLINGTON: New Zealand officials are investigating the possibility that its first COVID-19 cases in more than three months were imported by freight, as the country plunged back into lockdown on Wednesday (Aug 12).
The discovery of four infected family members in Auckland led Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to swiftly reimpose tight restrictions on movement in New Zealand's biggest city and travel limitations across the entire country.
The source of the outbreak has baffled health officials, who said they were confident there was no local transmission of the virus in New Zealand for 102 days and that the family had not travelled overseas.
"We are working hard to put together pieces of the puzzle on how this family got infected," said Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.
Investigations were zeroing in on the potential the virus was imported by freight. Bloomfield said surface testing was under way in an Auckland cool store where a man from the infected family worked.
"We are very confident we didn't have any community transmission for a very long period," Bloomfield said during a televised media conference. "We know the virus can survive within refrigerated environments for quite some time."
The NZ business of US-based Americold, a refrigerated storage specialist with operations in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, identified itself as the owner of the cool store.
Americold NZ managing director Richard Winnall told the NZ Herald the infected man had been on sick leave for several days and all employees had been sent home for tests.
CHINA HAS REPORTED VIRUS ON PACKAGING
China has reported instances of the coronavirus being detected on the packaging of imported frozen seafood.
On Tuesday, the city government of Yantai, a port city in eastern Shandong province, said it had found the virus on the packaging of frozen seafood that had arrived from the port city of Dalian, which recently battled a surge of cases. Officials said the seafood was from an imported shipment that landed at Dalian, but did not say where it originated.
The World Health Organization website states there is currently no confirmed case of COVID-19 transmitted through food or food packaging. However, it also notes that studies have shown that the virus can survive for up to 72 hours on plastic.
Residents of Auckland, home to around 1.7 million people, were given just hours to prepare for the return to level 3 restrictions on Wednesday, requiring people to stay at home unless for essential trips.
"Going hard, going early with lockdown is still the best response," Ardern said. "Our response to the virus so far has worked ... we know how to beat this."
The rest of the country was placed back into slightly looser level 2 restrictions. The restrictions will initially remain in place until Friday.
Police set up roadblocks around Auckland to discourage a mass exodus from the city, while supermarkets began rationing the sale of some staple products amid a rush to the shelves. Long queues formed at COVID-19 testing centres in the city.
Ardern said her Cabinet will decide on Friday on the next steps with regards to restrictions.
Two members of the infected family had visited tourist sites in the town of Rotorua, about three hours drive south of Auckland, while symptomatic, and a third had gone to work at a finance company in Auckland, also while symptomatic.
Bloomfield said four people who had contact with the family were considered likely cases. More than 200 people have been identified as close or casual contacts of the family and health officials were prepared to test tens of thousands of people in the coming days, he added.
Ardern also delayed a key step towards a Sep 19 general election, suspending the dissolution of parliament, that usually kicks off campaigning, until Monday.
A decision on whether the actual poll would be delayed would be announced before Monday, Ardern said, as the country's major opposition party cancelled its weekend campaign launch and called for the election to be pushed back to November.
National Party leader Judith Collins also demanded more transparency around the outbreak and the decision to resume lockdown measures, citing the enormity of the economic impact.
Siouxsie Wiles, microbiologist and associate professor at the University of Auckland, said lockdown measures were the best option to stamp out the virus. She warned restrictions would likely be extended if officials could not trace the source within three days.
"The race is on to find the source of the cases and break any chains of transmission," she said.
New Zealand had been held up by the World Health Organization as an example of how to contain the disease after recording only 22 deaths in a population of 5 million and preventing community transmission for more than three months.