Bloomfield says new outbreaks of COVID-19 may see regions under different levels

coronavirus 14/05/2020

Since their introduction in March, the pandemic alert levels have applied nationwide - but that might not be the case for much longer. 

The entire country moved into level 2 overnight, bringing us another step closer to normality after seven-and-a-half weeks of lockdown at levels 3 and 4.

New Zealand's gone two days without any new confirmed or probable cases, but some regions have gone several weeks without any. For example, it's been 38 days since the South Island's West Coast had a case, 26 days for Southland, 24 for the Bay of Plenty, 29 for the East Cape and 27 for Northland. 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield told The AM Show on Thursday isolated new cases wouldn't see the country fall back to level 3 or 4.

"We are looking very hard for new cases all the time, and we've got really good testing capacity. I've just seen a new graph showing that New Zealand has done the most tests per case we've identified of any country, with Taiwan in behind us. So we will keep doing the testing. Our job here is to keep an eye out in the community, see if there are any cases popping up. 

"A case in itself is not a problem - it's our ability to then ringfence it and do the contact tracing. That's why we've scaled up our capability there. We will be looking for new cases and whether there is evidence of community transmission."

If new cases popped up that couldn't be ringfenced, an as-yet unused power of the alert system might be activated for the first time.

"I think the other thing that may be an option in alert level 2, that we haven't had to do in 3 and 4, is those regional differences," Dr Bloomfield explained.

"If we've just got a problem in a particular district or region, then we might have firmer restrictions in that district or region but without having to restrict the whole country. You could have restrictions around movement of people again for a period of time in a region."

Other countries have done this, notably China, which implemented tougher lockdowns in hard-hit places like Wuhan. The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 was first detected in the city, located in China's Hubei province, which accounts for 69 percent of China's 4633 reported COVID-19 deaths. 

Despite an 11-week lockdown, a new batch of cases was reported in Wuhan this week. Dr Bloomfield said that shows just how difficult to eliminate the virus will be.

"Elimination is the goal, and we've got a pretty clear definition of that. But no country has managed to eradicate this... It's a long-term game here." 

Elimination doesn't necessarily mean the virus is gone for good - but that new cases only originate from known sources, and can be contained. Measles and rubella are officially eliminated from New Zealand, for example, despite the occasional outbreak, usually brought in from overseas.

Few countries with outbreaks of COVID-19 have managed to record days with no new cases.

"I do feel this is an achievement," said Dr Bloomfield. "I guess I want to pass on my congratulations to everybody because we did our bit, and asked people to do theirs - and they did, so we all got here together."