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Auckland Airport worker likely infected with Covid-19 by airborne transmission - expert

An investigation is underway into how an Auckland border worker contracted Covid-19, with the possibility the virus was contracted through airborne transmission. 

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Canterbury University’s Michael Plank says its “certainly possible” new variants are more transmissible by air. Source: Breakfast

The worker, who cleans high-risk planes at Auckland International Airport, tested positive for coronavirus on Monday.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said yesterday, the genomic sequencing results show they contracted the UK variant of the virus, most likely from a passenger that returned on April 10. 

Exactly how the worker would have picked up the virus is still unknown, as there was no face to face contact between the worker and passengers.

Auckland Airport worker cleaned green zone Australia planes before testing positive for Covid-19

But University of Canterbury’s Professor Michael Plank told Breakfast today it's likely the worker picked up the virus through airborne transmission while cleaning a plane an infected person had arrived in Auckland on.

While direct contact is the most common source of transmission, there have been previously reported border cases linked to airborne transmission. 

Plank - an a expert in mathematical modelling - is calling for the Government to overhaul its approach to dealing with the virus at the border after the fully vaccinated worker contracted the virus despite following strict protocols. 

Auckland Airport worker has UK variant of Covid-19 - Hipkins

“Obviously they were using PPE but it’s thinking about the air, the airspace and ways that we can make it not contaminated.” 

“This thing with Covid is once you minimize the risk, you find that there’s actually another risk and it looks like airborne is the most likely risk we should be concerned with,” he says. 

“Do we need to leave a longer period of time before the person goes on to the plane? Can we run the ventilation system before anyone goes through?”

A deep clean of the infection site has already begun by the worker’s employer, Menzies Aviation, under advice from the Ministry of Health.

In a statement, the company says it's working to inform staff who may have come in to contact with the infected worker. 

It wouldn’t be the first case of airborne transmission of Covid-19 in New Zealand after an investigation launched in February following an outbreak at Auckland’s Pullman Hotel. 

It was later found to be caused by droplets in the air and not contaminated surfaces. 

Five people tested positive for the virus after they had left MIQ, which sparked a full upgrade of the facility’s ventilation system.

“We’ve seen from CCTV footage that when it came to being tested, both their bedroom doors were open minutes apart,” Plank told Breakfast. 

“It looks like that was how they actually came to be infected.” 

Plank argues that while the Ministry of Health has focused on the higher risk of face-to-face transmission, it’s allowed for airborne infections to become “more common by comparison.”