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Seizing our Covid-19 advantage

Opinion article written by Stacey Shortall

Ever feel like you’re the only one in the room who doesn’t get it?

You’re not alone.

The discussion around Covid-19 has landed me in that unnerving spot several times. I have listened to the epidemiologists and other public health experts explain how the Covid-19 virus operates. I have watched the press briefings and media interviews detailing our sobering tally of confirmed cases and sad deaths. I have read the online reports of how overseas countries are grappling with the pandemic. And, like you, I suspect, I have accepted that Covid-19 is here in New Zealand and future outbreaks are possible, if not likely.

Now I am as keen as the next New Zealander to get us all moving about freely and our economy opening back up. I know that what started as a health crisis in our country is quickly exploding into an economic crisis. Reported forecasts about unemployment, debt, businesses collapsing and other hardship are bleak to say the least. I see the strain of the lockdown in my home, on my street, throughout my community and across the country. So, don’t get me wrong, I want us out of alert level three with reopened businesses, schools and other public spaces fast.

Yet as we move from saving lives to saving livelihoods, I admit to being a little concerned that news about mass testing and more tracing isn’t filling our headlines. Because I am certainly up for it, and I suspect so, too, are many of you.

Without question, our team of five million has does an incredible job over the past weeks to stifle the spread of Covid-19 here. With the glorious benefit of hindsight, there will inevitably be criticism and recrimination. But none of us could properly contest that government and its officials have worked hard to keep us safe. We have dug in deep together and are now being applauded around the globe for our efforts.

Because of such efforts, we get to consider re-opening our economy and our lives. Yet, as we all know, reducing alert levels cannot only be about saving or creating jobs, or letting us live more. It must also be about removing the uncertainty that could plunge us back into total or even partial lockdown again. For unless we do everything possible to remove that uncertainty, we risk ending back at the starting line but with a weary and less well-equipped team. That is the last thing any of us wants.

So maybe I am missing something but I admit to feeling a little nervous about New Zealand reopening on a broad scale without mass testing and tracing being done for Covid-19 infection.

That’s not to say we aren’t trying hard. To be tested, we have generally needed to meet certain criteria like exhibiting cold or flu-like symptoms. On 8 May 2020, the Ministry of Health reported that more than 175,000 tests have been completed in New Zealand. That doesn’t sound too bad. Except that there are over 4.8 million of us. This suggests that only around 3.6% of us have been tested. In other words, a relatively small number of tests have currently been done for Covid-19 infection in our country. We also have all read the media stories about issues with New Zealand’s contact tracing regime. Not only does it appear that we need more workers to handle tracing efforts, but it seems that the launch of a smartphone tracking system is not imminent.

New Zealand now reportedly has the capacity to test up to 12,535 people per day. With 175,000 of us already tested, assuming we start immediately checking this number of new people each day, it will be over a year from now before everyone is tested - once.

I accept that our testing rate is comparatively similar to Australia. According to the Australian Department of Health website, 757,250 tests have been conducted there. With a population of 25 million, this means only around 3.03% of the Australian population has been tested too. However other countries, like Germany, have done much more. Striving to test its entire population, Germany made its own antibody tests and began conducting extensive diagnostic screening. According to the New York Times, Germany is testing at least 120,000 people every day. While that might be proportionately similar to New Zealand’s current ability to test on a daily basis, the difference is that they started it early and during their lockdown. Not at the end of it.

OECD data indicates that Iceland, Luxembourg and Estonia have tested more of their populations for Covid-19 than any other countries. Granted thanks in part to its small population, one in eight of Iceland’s population has been tested, including those with no symptoms. This testing showed that around 50% of people infected with coronavirus had not shown symptoms at the time of testing. Wide-ranging testing and tracking has also been credited with playing a very important role in South Korea being able to contain the spread of the virus.

Without wishing to diminish all the great testing work underway in New Zealand, and acknowledging that I am no medical or pandemic expert, I still would like to understand why we cannot do more here. Perhaps greater widespread Covid-19 testing in New Zealand remains currently unavailable or unaffordable. Maybe there is a shortage in the swabs and other equipment needed to conduct extensive screenings or more rapid tests. Not to mention the number of medical personnel who might be required to conduct more tests. It could be that more blood tests or serology-based antibody tests do not make medical sense in current circumstances. Possibly the labs that would need to undertake tests are overrun. For all I know, more expanded testing is planned and will soon be rolled out. But given that we don’t yet seem to have a robust system to trace everyone who has been in contact with an infected person, I am not totally convinced.

I get that building substantial testing and tracing capacity is hard. But New Zealand is filled with smart, pragmatic, resourceful, innovative people who relish overcoming a challenge. Just look at what we have done over the past weeks.

We are beating the odds, but we have not won the game. We all know there is a long road ahead. Even if one can be found, a vaccine is many months if not years away.

In the absence of a Covid-19 vaccine, with the risk of further flare ups in New Zealand, and the uncertainty that all creates, surely we must find a way to really ramp up testing and tracing.

From what I have seen, heard and read, wide-ranging testing and excellent tracing is the key to slowing the spread of any outbreaks by identifying and isolating cases while they are infectious. It must also enable important medical treatment to be administered earlier and chances of survival to increase.

Sure good hygiene and social distancing will help minimise any spread too, but I admit to only cautious optimism that those measures will truly hold the fort especially as schools head back and regular life seeks to resume. Rather lots of testing and robust tracing is what must really prevent us from going back into lockdown and shutting down our economy again. Done well, it could even let us get back to alert level one.

This is not just about government. This is also about involving business and being smart by developing and investing in more test-and-trace infrastructure.

Just imagine what business and government could do together to develop an extensive testing regime and ability to trace contacts of those who test positive. We would get to keep and create jobs, not to mention continue to lead the world in how we respond to this deadly virus. Pharmaceutical and biotech industries could flourish. All the while also looking to best protect New Zealand from Covid-19 into the future.

Take Iceland again. Its broad-based testing rate of almost 135 per 1,000 people is down to a public private partnership, which involves a genetic research company conducting tests on people. That work is morphing into efforts to map the molecular epidemiology of Covid-19 there so as to provide helpful data to other countries. Such work is grabbing international attention. This is just the sort of ground- breaking work that New Zealanders thrive on. Given that our efforts to date in suppressing Covid-19 are being touted internationally, there must be an opportunity here for New Zealand to grab attention for our innovation as well as our discipline in lockdown.

But, as I said earlier, maybe I’ve missed something obvious. It might be that mass testing and better tracing is in the works, such that my nervousness is misplaced.

Possibly I just don’t get it. Or just maybe I do, and more of us can come together to do something about it.



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