Covid 19 coronavirus: Three new community cases linked to Papatoetoe High School cases; 31 Kmart Botany staff now close contacts

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Two siblings of the schoolgirl who tested positive yesterday were last night also confirmed as Covid-19 cases.

One is a recent school-leaver who works at Kmart Botany which is now a location of interest. Thirty-one staff are considered close contacts and need to isolate and get tested.

Anyone who was at the store last Friday (February 19) and Saturday (February 20), between 3.30pm and 10.30pm, is considered a “casual plus” contact and must stay home and get tested today.

And every one of the 1500 students and 150 staff at Papatoetoe High School is being told to isolate and get re-tested despite the initial case not attending school yesterday.

6.35am: Canterbury University Covid 19 modeller Michael Plank; 7.05am: Dr Ashley Bloomfield; 8.05am: Stuart Nash, Mark Mitchell

Anyone who lives with a student or teacher must isolate until their family member tests negative.

The third positive case in that household is an infant and was not taken to any early childhood care.

It is understood officials were last night working to establish whether the cluster was still considered contained. Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins will hold a press conference at 1pm.

Earlier, Hipkins said even if yesterday’s case was uncovered before Cabinet’s alert level decision on Monday, it would not have been enough to prevent a move to level 1 because at that point the perimeter of the outbreak was still considered well contained.

Some experts believe the situation is low risk but warn it is possible the current cluster could keep bubbling away for days, or even weeks, given the virus’ long incubation period.

University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker said it was always worrying when there were cases in the community – and the next few days were critical in deciding what to do next.

“This [latest case] was someone they were intending to check out anyway, and they just missed them,” he said. “It shows the system is working – and how hard it is to track down every last contact, when you have over 1000 of them.

“The information you really want to know is amongst those contacts whether any of them test positive. If those in their immediate work environment don’t test positive that’s generally quite good news. It doesn’t mean you’re in the clear but that would be a good sign,” he said.

The Papatoetoe High School student tested positive for Covid yesterday morning after developing muscle aches and a loss of smell.

It was the first time the schoolgirl had been tested despite a “get tested” order more than a week after her fellow student was confirmed as a case among the Valentine’s Day cluster.

There were numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact the student and her family since last Monday.

Students and staff from Papatoetoe High School are having to be re-tested after a student tested positive. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Students and staff from Papatoetoe High School are having to be re-tested after a student tested positive. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Household contacts of students and staff were not asked to isolate last week so the five other people in the family of the latest case were free to go about their normal lives.

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said there were 10 other outstanding “casual plus” contacts at the high school who posed a risk and were being followed up.

Contact tracers were sometimes making more than a dozen phone calls, texts and emails, checking with GPs to double-check contact details and had to employ interpreters where there were language barriers, he said.

Teams would now be deployed to knock on doors of those who hadn’t yet been tested.

“It’s not for anyone to pass judgment on what other people are doing,” Bloomfield said when asked why the student hadn’t been tested already.

There had been high levels of support and co-operation and the fact the student didn’t go back to school and got a test showed there was a level of understanding, he said.

To avoid a witch hunt on social media, Hipkins asked New Zealanders to “demonstrate a little bit of kindness” while the case investigation was ongoing.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said they don't know why it took so long for the student to get tested. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said they don’t know why it took so long for the student to get tested. Photo / Mark Mitchell

“The last thing we want is people reluctant to come forward and be tested or come forward with the information we need for the case investigations because they don’t want to subject themselves to [the social media reaction].”

Yesterday’s initial case, a Papatoetoe High School student known as Case I, has not been at school. They are a casual plus contact of the initial Papatoetoe High School case and had been advised to self-isolate and get tested.

The teenage sibling, known as Case J, recently finished school and has been working at Kmart Botany, the Ministry of Health said.

Case J was at work last Friday and Saturday between 4pm and 10pm. Kmart Botany is regarded as a location of interest.

“Therefore anyone who was at Kmart Botany, 500 Ti Rakau Drive, Botany Downs, at these times is considered a casual plus contact.

“If you are a casual plus contact, you are advised to immediately isolate at home and call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 for advice on isolation timeframes and testing requirements.

“Thirty-one staff at Kmart have already been identified as close contacts and are isolating and being provided with public health advice.”

In a statement, Kmart said: “… the health and safety of our team and customers is our highest priority and we can confirm that we were alerted this afternoon of a team member who has returned a positive result for Covid-19 at the Kmart Botany store.

“As soon as we were made aware, we immediately closed the store as a safety precaution and commenced a thorough sanitisation of the store.

“We have also asked all contacts of this team member to isolate. We are working closely with the New Zealand Department of Health and will continue to take every safety precaution.

“The team member last worked from 4pm to 10pm on February 19 and 20.”

Dark Vapes in East Tamaki has also been added to the ministry’s locations of interest for the newest case.

People who visited Dark Vapes in East Tamaki on Friday (February 19) between 2.30pm and 4pm and Saturday (February 20) between 7pm and 8.30pm are being considered as casual plus contacts and should stay home and get a test.

Dark Vapes owner Rakibul Howlader said he was the only person in his Springs Road store at the time the infected customer visited both times so was currently isolating.

“I was serving the customer so I have to go into isolation … it is a bit of a shock but it has been five days already and I’m fine and I haven’t got any symptoms or anything.”

He had only learnt that his East Tamaki store was a location of interest yesterday afternoon, but would be organising a thorough clean, he said.

Those who visited either Kmart Botany or Dark Vapes on February 19 should get a test on Wednesday and those who visited on February 20 should wait until Thursday, according to updated information on the MoH website.

Other locations of interest for the three cases are being investigated and will be notified when available.

The ministry said the infant, known as Case K, did not have childcare outside the home.

A testing centre was set up at Papatoetoe High School early Tuesday afternoon and 672 tests were done. Testing will be available again at the school today.

The school community has been requested to get tested if they had not done so on Tuesday.

The ministry says everyone in a Papatoetoe High School household must stay away from work or any other school, educational facility or community setting (eg the supermarket or any other place outside the home).

The school remains closed and no students or staff will be able to return until advised by a Medical Officer of Health.

At this point, household members who are not students or staff do not need to be retested, unless they have symptoms or are asked to do so.

“We will be providing updates on contact tracing tomorrow. Whole genome sequencing of Case I will be available tomorrow [Wednesday],” the ministry said.

Kmart’s Botany store was closed around 5.30pm on Tuesday for deep cleaning.

Shoppers said a sign was now hanging on the store’s door, saying it had been closed for cleaning after a confirmed case of Covid.

One shopper said he and his partner were walking in the store when a staff member stopped them at the door.

“He said: ‘You need to get out,” he said. “We looked behind him and staff were putting masks on or had already put masks on.”

The shopper said another lady came out of the store just after them. She had been at the checkout but was told to “drop everything and get out now”.

The shopper said other shops nearby remained open and didn’t appear to be affected.

A second shopper told the Herald he arrived at Kmart Botany about 6pm when staff were leaving.

When he asked one of them what had happened they told him they were closed for deep cleaning. “I asked if it was Covid and they nodded,” the shopper said.

Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault said all students and teachers were being re-tested immediately, with four stations in the hall testing people on Tuesday afternoon.

“There’s a huge squad that turned up in about 45 minutes and we’re rolling.

“At this point we are starting with senior students and working our way down because of the nature of the positive case and the interviews.”

He said the idea was to test as many students as they could on Tuesday, because they’re already there.

“It only takes a few minutes and there’s a few testing stations so they’re really trying to crank through as much as they can,” Couillault said.

Couillault said people were “disappointed” and “frustrated” they were going through this again.

“But I’m very confident that everybody will revert back and get the job done like they did last time.”

In the meantime the school would close on Tuesday evening until further notice, a post on the school’s Facebook page said.

National’s Covid-19 Response spokesman Chris Bishop said it was concerning the latest case hadn’t been tested sooner and urged the Government to move more expeditiously.

He said contact tracers should be going out and knocking on doors if they couldn’t get hold of someone.

“Speed is of the essence here … it is worrying it’s taken a week to find this person.”

The Government also came under fire in February when it took more than 10 days to contact all the 353 returnees from the Pullman after a fellow guest tested positive after leaving managed isolation.

At the time the Prime Minister said the Health Ministry needed to look at the reasons behind the “lag” in contact tracing.