The source of the New Zealand outbreak has not been determined by officials.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday the earliest case identified was a worker at an Americold storage facility in Mt Wellington, Auckland, who became sick on July 31 – though that person might not be the origin of the outbreak.
The country now has 56 active cases, including 37 from community transmission, and is scrambling to limit the spread of the outbreak after its 102-day run of no community transmission ended last Tuesday.
Of those 37 cases, 35 had been confirmed as linked to the Auckland cluster and the other two are both suspected to be linked to the cluster.
A total of 54 people linked to the Auckland cluster are now in managed quarantine to control the spread of the virus and a total of 86 per cent of these people’s close contacts had been reached within 48 hours by contact tracers.
The number of positive COVID-19 cases linked to the Mt Wellington Americold site has grown to nine people, while eight more people are awaiting test results and contact tracing is being conducted.
Dr Bloomfield said they had been doing environmental testing at the Americold facility in Mt Wellington.
“That is being processed today. I have also had contact from my counterpart in Victoria who has linked me with their lab there, that is doing some genome sequencing on some [coronavirus] cases of employees in an Americold cool store there in Melbourne, just again to see if there is any possible linkage there. So we are looking at that possibility, it’s part of the overall puzzle and we are leaving no stone unturned,” he said.
The possibilty that the virus is linked to the Melbourne facility is just one of the avenues being examined by New Zealand authorities as they scramble to determine the source of the outbreak.
Dr Bloomfield said that genome sequencing indicated there was no link between current community outbreak in New Zealand and the outbreak earlier this year.
Mr Winnall said there had been two positive cases of coronavirus linked to the firm’s Melbourne storage facility three weeks ago but after working with the Victorian health authorities, the company had ensured there was no transmission in the workplace.
While there is no known link between the New Zealand and Melbourne cases, the Department of Health and Human Services Victoria (DHHS) is aware of four cases linked to Americold in Laverton North, a rural-urban fringe suburb of Melbourne.
DHHS is working closely with the facility to ensure public health actions are being undertaken, including contact tracing, cleaning and quarantine.
“Victoria is assisting New Zealand with their queries,” a DHHS spokesperson said.
Mr Winnall said there was no evidence that New Zealand’s new cases had been sparked by frozen sea freight.
“Since Wednesday and the first press conference held by Dr Bloomfield, he has mentioned the potential of this coming in on frozen sea freight because they are looking at all alternatives. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone has put to me that substantiates that [theory],” Mr Winnall said.
“There is no inbound freight from the Melbourne facility to the Mt Wellington facility. To my knowledge, there is no relationship between the other facilities in Auckland [the company has four sites in Auckland] and the Mt Wellington facility.”
The company, Mr Winnall said, was fully supporting the New Zealand Ministry of Health investigation at the site and said he was eagerly awaiting the results of swab testing of surfaces at the Mt Wellington site.
Health Minister Chris Hipkins said it was “very heartening” that the outbreak and cases all remained connected to one cluster and pleaded with all Auckland residents to follow the rules of the level three lockdown.
“We all want to be out of level three as quickly as we can, people following the rules is the best way to ensure that,” he said.
“We want to get businesses open and operating again, we want to get people back to work as quickly as we can.”
New Zealand processed 23,846 tests on Friday, a new record for the country, and has conducted more than 49,000 tests over the last three days.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has to decide by Monday whether or not to delay the country’s national election, which is due to be held on September 19.
Ardern said on Friday that New Zealand was ‘going hard and going early’ after learning from the coronavirus outbreak in Australia, as she extended stage-three restrictions in Auckland by a further 12 days and kept the rest of the country under stage-two restrictions.
“We have always taken a precautionary approach because if you make a wrong move, with COVID, we can see very easily the long term impact of that particularly in terms of how long, as a consequence of the wrong move, you can spend with restrictions. Australia has demonstrated that to us, we are looking at the experience of others in making our decisions,” she said.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.