Morning Briefing Feb 16: Nervous wait as Covid test results roll in

Health officials nervously await today's Covid test results and there's more promising news about the Pfizer vaccine as it arrives on New Zealand's shores.

A nurse administers a Covid-19 test. Source: Getty

Health officials are racing to pinpoint the source of the latest community outbreak of Covid-19 with today’s test results crucial to learning how far the infections may have spread.

Although no community cases were recorded yesterday, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says test results over the next couple of days will determine whether there’s been undetected transmission of the virus. 

Two additional testing centres in Takanini and Papatoetoe are being set up today after Aucklanders responded to calls to get tested yesterday.

Testing centres in New Plymouth have also been kept busy, although residents there are being urged to only go for a test if they are symptomatic or were at a location of interest. Opinion is still split in the Taranaki town over whether they should be at Alert Level 3 alongside Auckland. 

And as testing continues, several experts have weighed in on their theories as to the source of the new outbreak.

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says the new cases have either come from unknown transmission in the community or a border breach.

He says he’s inclined to think it’s the latter given one of the cases works for an airline laundry and catering company. 

Meanwhile, Otago University virologist Dr Jemma Geoghegan says it’s “hugely significant” that there’s no link between the new outbreak and existing MIQ cases.

Associate Health Minister and infectious diseases expert Ayesha Verrall also says the possibility that the UK variant of the virus is being transmitted without people being in “in direct contact” means New Zealand must be aggressive in controlling the latest cluster.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern admits the source of this outbreak may never be confirmed but told TVNZ’s Breakfast yesterday changing alert levels isn’t dependent on establishing a link to the cases. Those alert levels are currently being reviewed every 24 hours. 

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Attention turns to prevention

As officials look to ringfence this latest community outbreak, attention has again turned to how best to keep the virus at the border.

National’s Judith Collins doubled down on calls for accelerated vaccination of border workers yesterday morning before saying all people in contact with airline travel, no matter the extent, should be included in the Covid-19 testing regime. 

It comes as the NZ Herald reports the LSG Sky Chefs employee who tested positive for the virus was one of several to miss a scheduled test at the start of the month.

The latest cases have also reignited calls for mandatory daily saliva testing for border workers, with leading public health experts saying it’s worked well as an added protection in other countries.

Newsroom reports Auckland Airport and Air New Zealand have already moved forward with privately provided saliva tests

Chaos at Auckland's edges

There was confusion and long queues at Auckland’s borders yesterday as new boundaries sparked frustration for travellers and forced police to relocate some checkpoints.

Three Northland towns - Mangawhai, Kaiwaka and Oneriri - were part of Auckland's restricted travel zone for much of yesterday before police moved three checkpoints back to where they were during last August’s lockdown. 

The southern border has also shifted to Mercer this time. It means the residents of Pokeno are now honorary Aucklanders, a move that’s left many bemused

Auckland’s new lockdown was also causing chaos in other facets of life yesterday, as shoppers again left supermarket shelves empty.

Jacinda Ardern says she “cannot explain” why people still feel the need to stockpile toilet paper and flour when alert levels change.

Foodstuffs-owned supermarkets say product limits may be put in place if customers don’t shop normally during elevated alert levels. 

Top secret shipment arrives

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s first batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived from Belgium yesterday morning.

Details of its arrival were kept top secret for security reasons, but the Prime Minister later confirmed 60,000 doses of the vaccine are now waiting at a new ultra-low temperature storage facility in Auckland.

Officials are performing final checks on the vaccine before border staff begin receiving their jabs on Saturday.

Australia also took delivery of its first batch of the Pfizer vaccine yesterday with their first jabs expected to be administered on Monday. 

Those developments come as more promising news emerges around the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine.

A study in Israel has found the vaccine reduced the number of symptomatic Covid cases there by 94 per cent. The preliminary findings suggest the vaccine is effective outside the controlled conditions of a clinical trial. 

Rule change for those on benefit

People who receive a benefit while working will soon be allowed to keep a bit more of what they earn before their benefit gets cut.

Under the Government’s new rules, recipients will be able to earn up to $160 a week before their benefit gets cut by 70 cents for every extra $1 they earn.

Social Development and Employment Minister Carmel Sepuloni says the rule change will make it worthwhile for people to work part-time and will help people facing reduced work hours due to Covid-19.

The changes come into force from April 1. 

Other news of note this morning:

- Westpac’s economists say New Zealand is set for another recession this year.

- With many people again facing uncertainty during tougher Covid-19 restrictions, 1 NEWS has rounded up what support is available to businesses.  

- Funeral directors are asking the Government to urgently grant them essential health worker status.

- The Waitangi Tribunal has been told child protection agency Oranga Tamariki is "beyond repair"

- An Auckland aged care home has been asked to apologise after a 95-year-old woman was found with ants on her neck and face while in their care.

- About 2000 tonnes of grout have blocked a new water main pipe in central Auckland.

- The special Halberg Awards acknowledging New Zealand’s sports champions from the past decade has been postponed following Auckland's move to Alert Level 3.

- And with CT values frequently discussed in the latest community outbreak of Covid-19, Seven Sharp has taken a look at what they actually are.

And finally...

Seven Sharp's Michael Holland enjoys a loo with a view. Source: Seven Sharp

It’s no secret tourism operators are crying out for business while the borders are closed, which is why the Highlands Motorsport Park at Cromwell has created an elaborate toilet block to, er, get a lot more bums on seats.

The loos with a view have some ornate touches, musical urinals and a receptacle that looks suspiciously like a certain former US president.

Punters are being asked to make a small donation after they’ve spent a penny at the new toilets, with proceeds being donated to the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Seven Sharp’s Michael Holland took a tour of the toilet block and says it’s far from bog standard. 

Is that enough crappy puns for a Tuesday morning? Okay, good.