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Covid 19: First community exposure of Omicron in NZ confirmed by Ministry of Health

5 min read

A person infected with the highly transmissible Omicron variant of Covid-19 spent several hours in the community on Boxing Day – visiting a number of Auckland’s hot spots including a nightclub and bar, restaurants, and a jewelry store.

The recent arrival from the United Kingdom is the first person infected with Omicron that has been active in the community in New Zealand.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson tonight confirmed the infected person did not wait for a negative test result before they left the place they were self-isolating.

University of Auckland Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles said this was not the news anyone wanted.

“The person was out and about at a time when they were positive so there is the possibility that they were infectious. We obviously know this variant is one that is incredibly infectious so I think we need to be prepared for the worst,” she told the Herald.

“My concern is that we have New Year coming up. If people are unwell in any way, they need to stay home and get tested. We really don’t want New Year’s Eve to be a massive super spreader event and that will be every difficult to control cases then.”

The community exposure was announced just hours after 17 Omicron cases were detected at the border on Wednesday – the highest daily increase since the variant arrived in New Zealand on December 16.

Experts said a total of 71 Omicron cases at the border reflects the explosion of cases in countries such as Australia and the US.

The Omicron case was active in Auckland’s CBD for more than 12 hours, visiting a number of establishments from the afternoon of December 26 until the early hours of December 27, including at the Commercial Bay Precinct.

Partygoers who were at the Impala nightclub on Shortland St from 11pm on December 26 until 3am on December 27 are considered close contacts and should self-isolate for seven to 10 days.

Over the two days the case also visited Chinese restaurant Sunny Town, Partridge Jewellers on Queen St, Ahi Restaurant and Soul Bar.

People at these locations of interest are considered casual contacts and are advised to watch for symptoms for next 14 days.

The infected person arrived from the United Kingdom via Doha on December 16 and had returned three negative tests during their seven days of managed isolation at a facility in Auckland.

But they returned a positive result on day nine of their self-isolation period, on December 27, and they were “immediately” transferred to an Auckland MIQ facility on the same day, the ministry said.

“At this point whole genome sequencing was carried out and confirmed the Omicron variant.”

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said it was unusual for people to test positive on day nine and indicated there could have been transmission inside an MIQ facility.

“Another possible explanation could be that it was an historic case and no longer infectious which would obviously be good news.”

The two priorities right now were contact tracing to control the outbreak and understanding what had happened to ensure it didn’t happen again, Baker said.

The person is fully vaccinated with the mRNA vaccine, the ministry said.

A government spokesman said at this point there were no plans to alter Auckland’s shift down to Orange in the protection framework setting.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed a press conference will be held at 11am tomorrow.

So far no other Covid-19 infections had been identified from the person’s flight, the ministry said. Investigations are underway as to the source of the infection.

A number of close contacts have been identified, but those tested had returned negative results.

DJ Friction, who was scheduled to play at the Rhythm & Alps music festival in Cardrona Valley on Wednesday night, pulled out because he was “in the vicinity of a potential Covid case” and was told to isolate despite returning a negative test.

The DJ performed at a Hidden Lakes music festival in Christchurch.

There are currently isolating while public health officials were in the process of identifying and contacting other known close contacts.

“We are taking this situation very seriously and taking a precautionary approach,” said the ministry.

“However, we do not believe that the individual was highly infectious at the time of the above exposure events.

“We are encouraging all Aucklanders to check the locations of interest website regularly and follow the advice provided.”

The ministry asked Aucklanders who had no symptoms and were not at a location of interest to leave testing resources free for those who needed it.

Health officials said no exposure events had been identified from the person’s movements between MIQ and the accommodation they stayed in while completing their isolation period.

Government response

Just eight days ago Hipkins announced a suite of changes to prevent Omicron from entering the community.

It included lengthening the time spent in managed isolation for those returning from overseas from seven to 10 days.

Up until recently returnees were able to leave MIQ after seven days and self-isolate at home for a further three days.

“Bringing those final three days back into MIQ reduces the risk of the virus entering the community,” he said.

“With over 70 countries around the world reporting Omicron cases and its high transmissibility, our plan is to get as prepared as we can by speeding up boosters and strengthening our border to keep Omicron out of the community for as long as possible.”

Meanwhile the Ministry said it has been doing “everything” it can to prepare for Omicron.

“This has included undertaking whole genome sequencing on every PCR sample taken from the Covid-19 cases detected in international arrivals.

“Our vaccine rollout remains our key defence against all variants of Covid-19, including Omicron.”

From January 5, people only need to wait four months – instead of six – since their last dose and will be able to access a booster dose through walk in clinics.

Omicron at the border

There are now 71 Omicron cases at the border in New Zealand, after 17 were reported on Wednesday.

The genome sequencing process can take a day or two, the Ministry of Health said, so the new Omicron cases detected on Wednesday did not all arrive overnight.

“The Omicron cases announced each day are not the same cases as those being announced as new cases at the border,” a spokesperson said.

“The Omicron cases being announced each day are the latest results on test samples that ESR have run whole genome sequencing on.”

University of Auckland Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles said the spike is to be expected, but it could end up burdening MIQ depending on how many Omicron cases need hospital care.

She said the spike was a reflection of the Omicron outbreaks that have plagued countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia over Christmas.

Many of the infected returnees have arrived from these countries – as well as India and Qatar – between December 20 and 26.

Coronavirus cases exploded across Australia on Wednesday, prompting Prime Minister Scott Morrison to schedule an emergency national cabinet meeting.

New infections in Sydney and surrounding parts of New South Wales state skyrocketed to more than 11,000, while Victoria state also reported a record 3,700 cases.

In the United Kingdom, 177,201 Omicron cases in total were reported on December 28.

“Cases are still rising in many, many places unfortunately. They are doubling every few days in many countries,” said Wiles.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said if Omicron cases peak too high, the Government may need to take action to avoid “saturating” MIQ.

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