For the past three months, New Zealanders have enjoyed a ‘COVID-free’ country, with citizens hugging one another, children returning to classrooms and sport fans filling stadiums. But this changed on Tuesday, when a family of four from Auckland, the country’s biggest city, tested positive for the virus, breaking a 102 day streak without any new COVID-19 cases. On Monday, New Zealand reported 9 new cases, bringing the total of active cases to 78 and of those 58 are linked to the Auckland cluster.
Although the government says the latest outbreak appears to currently be limited to one cluster, it is taking tough actions to prohibit any further spread. The small outbreak has sent a third of the population back into lockdown and the rest of the country into restrictions. Auckland has been placed under level 3 lockdown, with residents asked to stay home unless they have to go into work, buy groceries or exercise. “We can see the seriousness of the situation we are in,” Jacinda Ardern, the country’s prime minister said at a press conference. “It’s being dealt with in an urgent but calm and methodical way.”
New Zealand has been lauded internationally for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic with some suggesting Ardern is “the most effective leader on the planet.” Intense contact tracing, isolation and testing made New Zealand one of the first COVID-free countries in the world. On June 8, all social distancing measures were lifted after a 51-day lockdown, allowing citizens to return to normal life. Strict border controls remained in place, however, prohibiting entry to non-New Zealenders and requiring all returning citizens quarantine for 14 days.
But the latest outbreak in New Zealand—a country held up as an example by the World Health Organization—shows that even in a COVID-free nation that is implementing the toughest border control measures, coronavirus remains a threat. “Once again we are reminded of how tricky this virus is and how easily it can spread,” Ardern said in a televised media conference on Thursday. “Going hard and early is still the best course of action.”
New Zealand is not alone in confronting new COVID-19 waves after initial success in curbing the spread of the virus. Vietnam went 99 days without any new cases only to see a surge of new infections in July centered on the port city of Danang. Australia—where officials had talked of eliminating the coronavirus there, as well—recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic on August 10 due to a major outbreak centered on Melbourne. Much of the city, and surrounding state of Victoria, was forced a second lockdown to curtail the spread.
How did the virus resurface in New Zealand?
On Tuesday, four people from the same family tested positive for the virus, becoming the first cases since the country declared itself COVID-free on June 8. None of the patients worked at the country’s borders or had traveled overseas, raising questions about how they became infected in the first place. As of Friday, the cluster of cases has grown to 29 but remain connected to the original cases in Auckland. Thirty-eight people are in government quarantine.
Over 200 people who may have been exposed to the patients have since been tested, the majority of whom are from the same two workplaces as the infected individuals. One unproven theory is that the virus arrived in New Zealand by way of cargo, as one of the original infected individuals worked at Americold, a cold storage facility with imported food. Everyone at the company has been tested, with seven workers testing positive for the virus. Surfaces at the companies’ facilities have also been tested, amid evidence that the virus thrives in cold storage facilities. The company has mandated that all employees and their families self-isolate.
Additional testing is also being done at Rotorua, a town 142 miles southeast of Auckland, where the four family members visited prior to testing positive with the virus.
Although New Zealand has seen success in curbing the spread of the virus, experts say it is unsurprising the country is experiencing a new surge.
“Even with quite stringent precautions I don’t think we can be too surprised to see clusters arising,” said Angharad Davies, a clinical associate professor in microbiology at Swansea University. “Asymptomatic or near-asymptomatic infection and transmission makes this infection very difficult to track and it can circulate below-the-radar before being picked up, especially in clusters of younger people.”
Although all cases have been linked back to one cluster, it is too early to know whether the virus is circulating more widely. The original patient started showing symptoms on July 31, making it possible that the virus has been spreading undetected in New Zealand for several weeks.
“As we all learnt from our first experience with [COVID-19], once you identify a cluster, it grows before it slows,” Ardern said at a media briefing in Wellington on Thursday. “We should expect that to be the case here.”
What new restrictions has the government imposed?
On Wednesday, the government implemented a three-day lockdown in Auckland, requiring residents of the city to stay home except for work, necessary shopping and exercise. All schools, childcare facilities and non-essential businesses have been closed.
Although restrictions are less strict across the rest of the country, people are required to socially distance by maintaining two metres apart and wearing masks. The government has released 5 million masks from the national stockpile and is circulating them to vulnerable people who may be unable to afford one. All retirement homes have also been shut down and gatherings have been limited to under 100 people. Unlike with the previous lockdown, all patients who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to stay in a government-managed quarantine.
The government is also rolling out a COVID-19 tracer app to allow individuals to create digital records of where they have been that will help with contact tracing in the event of an outbreak. All businesses and services are required to display a QR code at the entry of their sites so that people using the app can check themselves in to that establishment. On Tuesday night alone, 100,000 people downloaded the app. “The ability to contact trace is one of the key tools we have to find new cases and get them in isolation to avoid future lockdowns,” Ardern said. “Using the app is a big investment in keeping our businesses and economy open.”
Since lockdown measures were announced on Wednesday, the country has seen a mixed response, with many abiding by the new rules and some fighting against them. In the Northland city of Whangarei, a small group of sixty people protested against new lockdown measures on Thursday. The protesters argued that the government’s latest restrictions violated their rights.
On Friday, Ardern announced a 12-day extension of the Auckland lockdown.
“They have achieved such a good level of control and so few cases that quite drastic short-term local measures are justified, in order to preserve relative normality in the medium to longer term,” said Davies.
How did New Zealand contain the virus the first time?
When COVID-19 was beginning to spread to other countries at the beginning of this year, New Zealand took decisive action to protect itself from the virus.
On February 3, New Zealand, which did not yet have any reported cases of COVID-19, banned entry to any foreigner coming from or via China where the outbreak began. Shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, officials imposed a mandatory lockdown for all those entering the country, one of the strictest lockdown measures in the world during that period. Within weeks, the government closed the border entirely to all non-citizens and residents.
At the same time, the government implemented a countrywide lockdown that restricted movement and limited social interaction to within a household. The government also carried out over 10,000 tests a day and implemented extensive contact tracing.
Although the island country is isolated and has a low population density, making containment efforts easier, experts say it’s the government’s decisive action that helped curb the spread of the virus. “New Zealand had the advantage of being an island but also established a hard lockdown and strict border controls early on, which were critical,” said Davies.
Part of what also appears to have made New Zealand’s strategy so successful is the willingness of citizens to abide by lockdown rules. Overwhelmingly, New Zealenders support the government’s approach to the pandemic, with one poll finding that 87% of citizens backed the government’s lockdown measures and only 8% opposed. Ardern has repeatedly thanked the New Zealand public, referring to the country as a “team of five million.”