Hundreds of Aucklanders are in self-isolation and surfaces at a coolstore are being tested as New Zealand tries to trace the origin of a mystery COVID outbreak in its biggest city.
The scare, which began on Tuesday night with confirmation four people from one family had tested positive for the virus, spread to a second city on Wednesday as Auckland began a strict three-day lockdown.
Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said one of the four people who had tested positive for COVID-19 – a woman in her 20s – had visited the tourist city of Rotorua while infectious last weekend.
By Wednesday afternoon, Dr Bloomfield had confirmed four more probable cases. They are two work colleagues and two people from a related household.
He also ordered all workers, contractors and anyone else who had visited the offices of freight company Americold in Mount Wellington, in suburban Auckland, into self-isolation. The same applies to anyone who has visited the Auckland offices of another company, Finance Now.
Surfaces at Americold, where one of the confirmed cases works, are being tested. The NZ Herald reports the man had been on sick leave for nine days before his positive test, and usually worked in an office rather than the coolstore.
Dr Bloomfield also said he couldn’t rule out a risk to consumers from products from Americold.
NZ authorities also confirmed one more COVID case in a returned traveller in hotel quarantine on Wednesday.
But the community cases are the most troubling. They are the first mystery cases of the virus in New Zealand for more than 100 days.
On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said greater Auckland would return to a “level three” lockdown from midday on Wednesday (local time). The rest of NZ will go to “level two” measures, which include caps on gatherings.
More than a million Aucklanders are required to stay home unless they are conducting essential work or essential personal movement – such as supermarket shopping, health care or exercise. Police have set up checkpoints around the city, and authorities are working on orders to make masks mandatory.
The lockdown, which will allow health officials to contact trace, isolate potential cases and conduct mass testing, will last at least until midnight Friday.
“We are prepared to test tens of thousands of people in coming days to see if there are cases of COVID-19 our community,” Dr Bloomfield said earlier.
Authorities say they have up to 7000 people to test in Auckland, Rotorua, Christchurch and Wellington. There were long delays at testing centres across New Zealand on Wednesday, as demand skyrocketed.
Genomic sequencing is also being used to try to track the origins of the positive tests. NZ had previously declared itself free of COVID-19 after one of the world’s toughest lockdowns.
On Tuesday night, Ms Ardern appealed for calm as lengthy, sometimes disorderly, queues formed outside Auckland supermarkets within an hour of the lockdown being announced.
“There will be ample stock on the shelves, there is no reason to go out and make any purchases this evening,” she said.
“I know that this information will be very difficult to receive,” she said.
“We had all hoped not to find ourselves in this position again but we had also prepared for it.
“As a team we have also been here before. We know if we have a plan and stick to it we can work our way through very difficult and unknown situations.”
All of the country’s aged-care centres have also been put in an immediate lockdown, with only staff and essential deliveries permitted.