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Wuhan coronavirus: 'It's highly likely we will get a case in New Zealand'

Jan 28, 2020

The Ministry of Health says there are no cases of novel coronavirus in New Zealand, following reports of a suspected case in Queenstown.

The novel coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, has infected 2800 people and killed at least 80 in China. The outbreak is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in Wuhan, Hubei.

A small number of cases linked to people who travelled from Wuhan have been confirmed in more than 10 countries, including Australia, Thailand, France, Japan and the United States where authorities said they had 110 people under investigation in 26 states.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield told Morning Report earlier today that local health authorities were following up reports of a person with coronavirus in Queenstown.

He said the Ministry of Health had heard "through the grapevine" about the case.

But a Ministry of Health spokesperson said it has since followed up with the Southern District Health Board, and said that it was a false alarm.

The DHB's chief medical officer Dr Nigel Millar also confirmed there were no cases of the coronavirus, and said there are no investigations into suspected cases within the entire district.

Dr Bloomfield said New Zealand had a well-developed protocol and case definition for possible suspected cases.

"So any clinician or public health unit staff member who is checking someone to see if they may be a case will be following that protocol."

He said any results from samples sent to Australia could be expected within days.

"We're using the lab there at the moment and working towards being able to do the test onshore here later this week."

He said there was no confirmation on whether the person, who was rumoured to have the virus, was a tourist but they had been staying at a hotel.

The Rees Hotel in Queenstown posted to their Facebook page saying they had received rumours that there was an outbreak of coronavirus at their hotel.

"Please note that these rumours are unfounded and untrue as there has been no outbreak of the virus in New Zealand," they said.

Read more on the coronavirus: Wuhan coronavirus death toll rises in China NZer stranded in Wuhan: 'The NZ government is falling behind' Face masks: how effective are they? Measures at airports: 'It's inevitable that we will get a case'

Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China.

Yesterday, health authorities were standing by at Christchurch and Auckland airports, providing voluntary checks for passengers arriving from China who felt unwell, and handing out pamphlets with guidance if passengers develop symptoms.

Passengers from international flights at Auckland Airport on Monday 27 January. Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

However, no-one arriving in Auckland yesterday or today asked for any health checks.

At Auckland Airport, there's also a sign advising passengers to call Healthline or their doctor if they feel unwell in the next month.

Christchurch has one flight from China every day and its health board is today liaising with nurses to check whether any passengers arriving on it last night had symptoms.

Nurses are not available for passengers arriving on other flights from Asia, including Hong Kong.

Asked if the health checks would be rolled out at other airports in New Zealand, Dr Bloomfield told Morning Report that at the moment the focus was on direct flights from China.

"People on flights coming out of China are well aware of what the situation is. I think the flights met yesterday most if not all people were wearing face masks, there was no-one who was displaying any symptoms at all.

"The key thing here is not so much finding people but is ensuring that anyone coming into the country has got information about what to do if they become unwell and that information has been available for some time."

Dr Bloomfield said while measures at the border were important, it was just one element of the preparations.

Health advisory at Auckland Airport amid the coronavirus outbreak in China. Photo: RNZ / Gill Bonnett

"In my media stand-up yesterday, I said it's highly likely we will get a case in New Zealand, our plan then is of course to isolate that person, we reduce the possibility of further transmission, and we're still assessing the likelihood of a sustained community outbreak as being low because we have those measures ready to go."

He said they do expect there will be a case in New Zealand at some point and were prepared for it.

"It's inevitable that we will get a case, we've seen this with the swine flu and we've seen this with SARS, we're very well prepared, and there's a high level of awareness.

"We've got in place all the measures that are reasonable and proportionate this time, we're working closely with Australia and very much in step with the actions they're taking."

Yesterday, three people were assessed and released after health officials were alerted they may have been exposed to someone with a confirmed novel coronavirus infection on a previous flight to Sydney.

Dr Bloomfield said the passengers would have daily check-ins and health authorities would remain in contact with the group for any developments.

Schools sent advice on precautions

Meanwhile, schools have been told to keep a close watch on foreign students arriving from regions affected by the coronavirus as they reopen this week and next.

Dr Bloomfield said the Ministry of Education had sent out advice to schools last night on what they should be doing.

"The main thing here is any unwell student or staff member with any respiratory illness shouldn't be going to school or to their early childhood centre, obviously there's a high level of awareness at the moment with the coronavirus.

"The advice from the ministry of education says is if there is a staff member or student who may be at high risk of exposure because of specific travel in China, in areas where there has been an outbreak, or they've been in close contact with someone confirmed with the virus then the school has been encouraged to ask that student or staff member to delay the start of their school year for 14 days."

Schools International Education Business Association director John van der Zwan said it had advised schools to take precautions, including asking families and education agents to monitor students' temperatures before they left their home country.

"If there's any indications of symptoms, then delaying their flights to New Zealand. When students arrive, schools can do their own easy little testing on students to see if their temperature is up and if they are then they can take action," he said.

Van der Zwan said the virus had not affected enrolments but schools were worried about the outbreak.

"Schools are concerned and I think anything like this it's important for schools to be vigilant and to be worried about how it might turn out.

"We're not seeing any kind of downturn in enrolments, we don't know of any people who have cancelled or delayed their travel plans to come to New Zealand as a result of this," he said.

"Schools are very much in a wait-and-see mode, like everybody is."

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