A mysterious case of coronavirus has emerged in Auckland, after a woman who was not a close contact of a known case and had not been at a potential exposure site, tested positive.
New Zealand is racing to stamp out an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant. Thirteen new cases were recorded on Thursday, the sixth day in a row that numbers have been below 21. The downward trend is an encouraging sign the tough lockdown measures are working, but the latest case may be cause for concern.
The ministry of health confirmed on Thursday night that the woman presented to Middlemore hospital’s emergency department for a health issue unrelated to Covid-19. She did not have any symptoms and answered all Covid screening questions in the negative, indicating she had had no exposure to anyone with the virus, nor had been at any location of interest.
While the woman was at the hospital, she took a Covid test. After discharging herself two hours later, she was told her test had come back positive. The patient is now in managed isolation.
Middlemore hospital’s staff are working alongside the Auckland Regional Public Health Service to assess the risk of this exposure.
All staff in the emergency department and adult short-stay area were wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment required for that area of the hospital, including N95 masks and goggles. The risk to these staff members is considered extremely low and no staff are being stood down.
Speaking to RNZ on Friday morning, the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr Peter Watson, said 36 patients and a small number of visitors had been identified as potentially exposed.
The New Zealand Herald reported that seven police officers have been stood down after coming into contact with the woman and a member of her family on Wednesday.
Middlemore hospital is in south Auckland, where many of the cases in the current outbreak live.
Watson said the woman was encouraged to take a test because there was so much concern about Covid in the south Auckland community. “We have a very low threshold for screening.”
It is the second Covid scare for the hospital in less than a week.
Last weekend, Middlemore staff were stood down and patients isolated and tested after a Covid-infected man showed up to the emergency department on Saturday with abdominal pain. Four wards were closed to new admissions. Initial tests on 149 people, including 29 staff, have come back negative.
The man said he had no knowledge of being in contact with the virus or being in a location of interest and did not have any other symptoms.
His abdominal pain was subsequently added to the checklist of symptoms that staff screen for.
University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said any case that appeared where, at first glance, there was no link to another case was a concern, but that it was early days.
“It’s one of the reasons why we are at alert level four. So I imagine they will be looking very, very closely at that person’s family members, workplace and to see where they got that infection.”
If a link is not found, it would likely mean the government would take a much more cautious approach to moving Auckland down alert levels.
Wiles said it was interesting that the two cases at Middlemore hospital did not have typical Covid symptoms, and she wondered if there were symptoms that officials were missing.
“It’s hard when you don’t know just how many people present with these rarer symptoms, which is important for us when we’re trying to catch every case.”
Wiles did not think it would necessarily be helpful for more people with no symptoms to get tested, but added that more localised, suburb-based sewage testing could help pinpoint areas of undetected infection.
The government and health officials will provide further updates to the current case at the daily Covid-19 press conference on Friday afternoon.