New Zealand on Thursday reported a breakthrough in tracing the source of a Covid-19 outbreak that plunged the nation into lockdown, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying it should help “wipe out” the virus.
Health officials have been trying to determine how an Auckland man contracted the coronavirus this week, ending a six-month period with no community cases in New Zealand.
Tests showed the man had found a version of the Delta strain in Australia, and Ardern said research narrowed the origin to a person who arrived from Sydney on Aug. 7.
She said the traveler had been quarantined and hospitalized since landing, indicating the virus hadn’t been in the community for as long as feared.
“We think we’ve found the puzzle piece we were looking for,” Ardern told reporters.
She said finding the source of the outbreak also increased the “ability to encircle, trap and eradicate the virus.”
The number of cases grew by 11 overnight to a total of 21, she said.
Ardern ordered a three-day national lockdown – the first in New Zealand in 15 months – when the first case surfaced Tuesday, with Auckland and nearby Coromandel facing restrictions for a week.
“We’re all prepared for cases to get worse before they get better. That’s always the pattern in these outbreaks,” she said.
But she said there was cause for cautious optimism “because we don’t think it was here long before it was found”.
The infected traveler arrived from Sydney on a so-called “red zone” flight, which had been arranged to bring back New Zealanders stranded when Wellington suspended a trans-Tasman travel bubble over multiple outbreaks in Australia.
The person tested positive two days later and was hospitalized a week later.
Officials said it was still unclear how the virus spread in the community and 1,000 close contacts of positive cases were being assessed.
A decision will be made on Friday whether the three-day lockdown will be extended or ended on Saturday.
‘Covid zero’ strategy
New Zealand has adopted a policy of eliminating the virus from the community rather than containing it, which has resulted in just 26 deaths out of a population of five million.
Neighboring Australia is pursuing a similar “Covid zero” strategy, but is struggling to contain outbreaks of the Delta variant.
Health authorities on Thursday pushed for massive Covid testing for an entire Outback town in far western New South Wales, where an outbreak that started in Sydney two months ago is spreading.
The area is struggling with Australia’s first significant outbreak in Aboriginal communities, with specialist military health teams deployed this week to boost slow vaccination efforts.
Early in the pandemic, Wilcannia’s roughly 750 residents posted signs at city limits asking travelers not to stop — fearing the virus would destroy an already vulnerable community, where more than 60 percent identify as indigenous.