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Trust in science helps New Zealand avoid COVID-19 lockdown again

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

  • There have been no domestic restrictions in NZ since early October.
  • NZ hasn't faced a "worst-case scenario" since an outbreak last August, said scientist Shaun Hendy, who heads Te Pūnaha Matatini research center, which advises the government, in an interview with Axios.

Driving the news: A 56-year-old woman last Saturday became the first NZ resident to test positive for the virus since November. Genomic sequencing determined she contracted the more virulent South African strain during managed hotel isolation.

  • Two other returned travelers tested positive after leaving the same Auckland hotel, it was confirmed Wednesday. They were genomically linked to the earlier case.
  • All test results of the close contacts of the cases have tested negative.
  • A key factor for not locking down was the virus was quickly detected owing to managed quarantine procedures and because the cases' exposure occurred before they reentered the community, per Hendy.
  • Some 38,000 COVID-19 tests have been processed this past week, including on the positive cases' close contacts.
  • Genomic sequencing and mathematical and hypothetical modeling, which can predict potential outbreaks down to a suburb, meant officials knew "our systems were very likely to contain" the virus," Hendy said.

Of note: Hendy said Tuesday there had been a failure in the managed isolation process. "But then this has shown that our other systems when they are used well can actually keep us from having to lock down again," he noted.

  • He added Friday that while researchers had a good understanding of the cases' links, "the fact that these cases were out in the community while infectious is worrying" and "lots" more testing was needed "before we can relax."

For the record: The government responded to the Pullman Hotel outbreak with measures including increased testing and requiring people who've just completed their two-week quarantine to isolate at home and get tested on the fifth day after release.

  • Interim measures while an investigation is under way include not admitting new arrivals to the Pullman and, from Saturday, all returnees must stay in their hotel rooms after their day 12 test before their departure.

By the numbers: The country of 5 million has confirmed 1,949 coronavirus cases and processed over 103,000 returned travelers in managed isolation facilities since the pandemic began.

  • Over 1.5 million COVID-19 tests have been processed, giving New Zealand one of the world's highest rates of testing per positive case.

The big picture: Last March, the government closed the borders to non-permanent residents and imposed one of the world's strictest lockdowns under a four-tier system.

  • Lesser restrictions returned last August after a 102-day absence of detected community cases, with the city of Auckland locking down.
  • The country is currently on level 1 measures, meaning "the disease is contained in New Zealand, but it remains uncontrolled overseas," per the Health Ministry. Masks are required for public transport and planes.

The bottom line: The World Health Organization said in an email to Axios there's "a lot that the global community can and is learning from the robust response in New Zealand" — including a "willingness to keep the response under review, and looking for ways to further strengthen it."

Per the WHO, other standout features include:

  • Robust systems for whole-of-government emergency response;
  • Robust preparedness for health emergencies including pandemics;
  • Clear and proactive public communication resulting in "buy-in" from the community;
  • Flexible legislative frameworks to support the response;
  • Awareness of the need for investment in measures to mitigate economic and social impacts of the pandemic and of social distancing measures.

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