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Capacity to track virus infections in NZ ‘must be expanded’


Beating Covid-19 requires a major improvement in finding and isolating cases, says Otago epidemiologist

New Zealand must urgently expand its contact-tracing system for Covid-19 infections if the country’s Level 4 lockdown measures are to be effective, a University of Otago epidemiologist has said.

Ayesha Verrall, an infectious diseases physician with the department of pathology and molecular medicine, has warned that NZ will need more accessible testing and faster processing systems for results.

She said the government’s lockdown restrictions were “a massive sacrifice very early in an outbreak”. 

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced the four-week lockdown on 23 March. It involves the closure of schools, libraries, museums and non-essential services for the next four weeks as the country tries to contain the spread of the potentially deadly virus.

“This is only worth it if New Zealand pursues a goal of eliminating Covid-19,” Verrall said in a university statement.

“This means rapidly building our capacity for case identification and contact-tracing capacity. We should aim to leave the lockdown in one month with the ability to identify and trace the contacts of 1,000 cases a day. We are currently struggling with 50.”

She said a rapid contact-tracing service should include mobile phone apps to distribute information and increased welfare support for those who “struggle in isolation”. 

“All these processes need to be fast, scaled up and integrated. China and South Korea have succeeded in this strategy of turning around large outbreaks, because they have strong public health infrastructure,” Verrall said.

“If we had better ability to find cases and isolate their contacts, we would be able to manage a larger number of cases without going into lockdown. That is how Singapore managed more than 500 cases without closing their schools. Building this capacity means we could look to the next 18 months with more confidence that we won’t have large outbreaks or be in perpetual lockdown.”

Ashley Bloomfield, NZ’s director-general of health, told Radio NZ that the government was “ramping up” its support services to deal with an increase in Covid-19 infections.

“We have anticipated this increase in cases and in addition to the capacity there is in all our public health units, we have stood up a team here in the ministry that is able to supplement the public health units and it can manage at the moment up to 50 new cases a day,” he said.