Feb 17, 2021 - Health

Testing and tracing "win" sees New Zealand city lockdown end despite COVID cases

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives at a press conference at Parliament on February 17, 2021 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives at a news conference at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, New Zealand, on Wednesday. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Wednesday Auckland's snap lockdown will end at midnight.

Why it matters: Officials confirmed two new COVID-19 community cases Wednesday. Ardern told reporters test results show "we don't have a widespread outbreak, but rather a small chain of transmission," centering around an Auckland high school, "which is manageable."

  • A key part of New Zealand's strategy to keep the pandemic in check is rigorous testing and tracing. Scientist Shaun Hendy, who heads a research center advising the government, told Axios Wednesday this was why restrictions eased.

Driving the news: Auckland locked down late Sunday for the first time since last August after a mother who works at the city's international airport, her partner and their teenage daughter tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.

  • Officials were concerned it might be a more contagious strain, and genome sequencing soon linked the cases to the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the U.K.
  • Health officials said Wednesday a classmate of the teen who contracted the virus had tested positive for COVID-19, along with a sibling who also attends Papatoetoe High School and another family member. They're all isolating at home.

For the record: From midnight, Auckland will move from level 3 to 2 under New Zealand's four-tier alert level system, with business and schools resuming with social distancing measures in place. Gatherings will be limited to 100, which will impact events at a time when the summer festival season heats up.

  • Ardern said there's one exception — Papatoetoe High School will remain closed until Feb. 22 and those connected to the school are asked to stay home. Students and teachers must return negative coronavirus test results before returning.
  • "COVID-19 is contained, but there is a risk of community transmission," she added.

Of note: The rest of New Zealand will move from level 2 to 1, with all domestic restrictions removed except for a requirement to wear masks on public transport.

  • Alert levels will be reviewed again on Monday.

By the numbers: New Zealand has one of the world's highest rates of testing per positive case.

  • Over 1.6 million tests for the virus have been conducted on the country of 5 million — including more than nearly 45,300 in the past week.

The bottom line: "This is a win for our tracing and testing, which have only shown up a small number of downstream cases (the classmate and family) from the initial cases," said Hendy, director of Te Pūnaha Matatini research center, in an email to Axios Wednesday.

  • "The testing (including waste-water testing) makes it less likely that there is an undetected cluster out there, so back to level 2 is what the playbook says in this case." 
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