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Covid-19 case in Blenheim is South Island’s first community case since 2020


A person has tested positive for Covid-19 in Blenheim.

The person, understood to be a young man, is now isolating awaiting the results of further testing. The case is considered to be low risk.

The Ministry of Health said the individual flew from Rotorua and arrived in Blenheim on October 21. They sought a test upon arrival after developing a sore throat. Initial case interviews suggest the case is linked to the Te Awamutu cluster.

It’s the first case of Covid-19 in the South Island since 2020, with Professor Michael Baker saying officials should start thinking about “a very proactive policy to limit transmission now from the North Island to the South Island.”

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The Ministry of Health said the latest case’s initial test, including a follow-up swab, returned a weak positive result, and that the risk appears low given the individual’s likely late stage of infection.

So far, initial case interviews have identified a small number of close contacts, who have been contacted and are isolating with tests arranged.

The public health response is being stepped up in Blenheim. An emergency response unit has arrived at Horton Park where a testing centre is located.

Civil Defence at Horton Park Testing Centre in Blenheim.

BRYA INGRAM/STUFF/Marlborough Express

Civil Defence at Horton Park Testing Centre in Blenheim.

Interviews were underway to determine any locations of interest. People living in the Blenheim township were asked to monitor the Ministry of Health’s locations of interest page, which is regularly updated.

Blenheim residents with symptoms – no matter how mild – are asked to get tested, even if they are vaccinated. Investigations into the source of the infection are underway.

What now for the south?

Professor of Public Health Michael Baker, from the University of Otago, Wellington, said a single isolated case flying to Blenheim should be quite manageable, provided contact tracing was “very rapid”.

The bigger problem now was to try to eliminate the virus in Waikato, where it was harder to set up a boundary to control people’s movements than was the case with Auckland, he said.

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker says the system will have to be vigirous to avoid the virus spreading rapidly.

Ross Giblin/Stuff

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker says the system will have to be vigirous to avoid the virus spreading rapidly.

The Blenheim case illustrated the challenge of trying to contain the outbreak where there was ongoing transmission, Baker said.

“It does mean the system will have to remain very vigorous if it’s to avoid this virus transmitting throughout New Zealand, which it could do quite quickly,” he said. “It does mean we need a very vigorous effort to stamp out the remaining chain of transmission in Waikato.

“If transmission becomes well established in Waikato, it’s obviously much harder to maintain a boundary around there.”

The case also raised questions about whether there was going to be a strong containment policy to prevent the virus becoming established in the South Island.

“Fairly obviously, it would be good to think about a very proactive policy to limit transmission now from the North Island to the South Island.”

Latest data from Nelson Marlborough Health shows 84.4 per cent of the people in the area it covers have had their first vaccination, and 72.3 per cent are fully vaccinated. The Marlborough region itself is on 90 per cent first doses.

Top of the south reacts

Mayor John Leggett said he’d had “a reasonably early heads up from the police [about the positive case] this morning.”

“You plan for these sorts of things because the possibility of a community case can occur, and it has.

“We [the Marlborough District Council] have plans in place in the event that an alert level change occurs in any way. We have to consider parks, libraries, and pools. I suppose an alert level change depends on the person’s contact tracing, and whether the person has been out and about in the community.

“I certainly hope there’s not a level change. I think right across the region employers and people in businesses have had in the back of their mind that they might have to respond pretty quickly to a change.”

STUFF

The Government’s new Covid-19 framework includes a ‘traffic light’ system and widespread vaccination certificate enforcement.

Chamber of Commerce general manager Pete Coldwell said putting the region into alert level three would have a major impact on local businesses.

“From a business perspective that is a major issue and will really hit business hard. That is the last thing anybody would want. It depends entirely on the Government’s response to this case. Every single region has been concerned that this might happen to them.”

Marlborough economist Alistair Schorn said the postive case came at an unfortunate time for businesses, many of which were expecting additional visitors due to the Labour Day and Marlborough Anniversary (November 1) long weekends.

“The main this is people are going to that much less inclined to have face-to-face contact with others until they know how and when this is going to shake out … This ‘basic hesitance’ will have some effect on normal economic activities, but how big or small is yet to be determined,” he said.

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said it was a terrible blow to the region but not entirely unexpected.

“No surprise it’s come to the top of the south – I guess it has been drifting down the country. It’s a bit of a stressful situation.”

Pickens had just spoken to some wine companies already moving into their contingency plans. In some ways the long weekend was good timing as most people were not working and there was time to make plans and have meetings, he said.

A police car blocking off one entrance to Wairau Hospital, in Blenheim.

BRYA INGRAM/STUFF/Marlborough Express

A police car blocking off one entrance to Wairau Hospital, in Blenheim.

“We did this before under the pressure of harvest, so I think this time it will be manageable.”

Less than 24 hours earlier Pickens was celebrating the “traffic light” announcement made on Friday, telling The Marlborough Express organisers of the Marlborough Wine and Food Festival would be pleased to have some clarification about what would be expected, assuming the country had reached the 90 per cent vaccination rate by the February event.

The event, usually drawing thousands of attendees each year, would have no choice but to require vaccination certificates under the traffic light system. Events that did not require certificates were capped at 100 people.

Now with the possibility of another lockdown for Marlborough, Pickens said there was a certain amount of anxiety creeping in.

Civil Defence at Horton Park Testing Centre. The Ministry of Health believes the public risk is low.

BRYA INGRAM/STUFF/Marlborough Express

Civil Defence at Horton Park Testing Centre. The Ministry of Health believes the public risk is low.

“But it’s still early days, we’re a good number of months away. It will be interesting to see how the next few weeks play out, if there’s any other cases, and how the community accepts Covid coming to the South Island.”

He had just gone past a barbershop where people were “queueing out the door”, which he assumed was people trying to get their hair done before a lockdown was announced, he said.

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese said it was only a matter of time before Covid reached the South Island so it was up to the community to get both vaccinations as soon as possible.

“There’s an inevitability around Covid and we’ve been hearing that from the PM over the last few weeks, which is why it’s so absolutely critical now that people get vaccinated. Over the next week it’s essential we keep moving that vaccination rate up. That is the best way for our community to stay safe.”

Marlborough residents getting vaccinated on Super Saturday.

BRYA INGRAM/STUFF/Marlborough Express

Marlborough residents getting vaccinated on Super Saturday.

More than 120 kilometres away from the Blenheim case, Tasman District mayor Tim King said it was “massively disappointing, but not entirely surprising” Covid had reached the top of the South Island.

He said after the traffic light announcement on Friday, this new case was “just another level of uncertainty about what happens next.

“We’re pretty used to level 2.”

King said the challenge for Nelson and Tasman was now reaching 90 per cent as the region was “behind a bit”.

“Whether you agree or not, try as hard as possible to get to 90 per cent to give ourselves the best chance in a shift of alert levels”.

South Island case ‘a matter of time’

Experts had warned it was only a matter of time before the infectious Delta variant of the virus, which has plagued the upper North Island, particularly Auckland, spread south.

The last community cases of Covid-19 in the South Island were two nurses who worked at the Sudima Christchurch Hotel, where hundreds of Russian mariners were isolating.

The pair, close contacts of one another, tested positive on November 2 and 3.

At 1pm on Friday, health officials said there were 129 new community cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand – 120 in Auckland and nine in Waikato.

They later confirmed two new cases had been identified in Northland.

Suburb vaccination rates can be found here.

Testing locations in Marlborough:

Blenheim CBAC: Horton Park, off Redwood St.Open 9am to 5.30pm on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

Nelson CBAC: Saxton Field parking area, Suffolk Rd, Stoke. Open 10am to 6pm on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

Additional testing capacity in the area will be stood up, if needed, and details will be available on the Healthpoint website.

Meanwhile, those in Marlborough, Nelson, and Tasman are reminded to get vaccinated this weekend if they have not already. Vaccination clinic locations across the region are available on the Nelson Marlborough Health website.



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