Covid-19: New rules could be introduced for air crew after Air NZ employee tests positive

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 8 Mar 2021, 9:40AM
(Photo / NZ Herald)
(Photo / NZ Herald)

Covid-19: New rules could be introduced for air crew after Air NZ employee tests positive

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 8 Mar 2021, 9:40AM

An Air New Zealand crew member has tested positive for Covid-19 and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says officials are investigating whether air crew need to be placed under more restrictions when they arrive in the country.

Ardern said today the case had not sparked a review of alert levels.

The air crew member returned a positive Covid test yesterday after a swab on Saturday - she had been at the Auckland Airport Countdown last Wednesday and it is now a "location of interest".

Her partner played golf yesterday with several friends at Remuera Golf Club but he has subsequently tested negative, along with two other household members.

She was given a Covid-19 vaccination shot last week.

The crew member arrived in Auckland on February 28 on a flight from Tokyo - 14 fellow crew members are isolating and being retested.

Ardern told TVNZ today that genome sequencing of the case was expected over the next 24 hours. She said the test "wasn't particularly strong".

Ardern said the Ministry of Health was considering whether there needed to be more restrictions on international crew. "We are going through a process ... of whether we need to up the ante on different countries."

Under Covid rules, air crew members are required to undergo Covid-19 testing every seven days.

All Air New Zealand air crew returning to New Zealand after flying on "higher-risk" routes need to self-isolate in a prearranged hotel for 48 hours. Los Angeles and San Francisco are currently designated as higher-risk routes. Japan is not considered a high-risk route.

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Ardern reiterated the conditions that already applied for air crew coming from some countries - that crew be isolated for 48 hours before returning even to the family home. That included the United States and other countries with a high prevalence of Covid.

Ardern told the AM Show the new case was picked up through routine testing and she would get more information today but there was just the one exposure event - the supermarket.

There was also no need for a rise in alert levels.

The strong hypothesis was that the Covid came from her workplace.

Ardern reminded people in Auckland that the city was in level 2 and asked them to continue to follow Covid guidelines around using the tracer app.

Crew member in quarantine

The crew member has been moved to the Auckland quarantine facility at Jet Park. The individual's three household family members have already been tested on Sunday and the results were all negative, says the Ministry of Health.

Fourteen other air crew on the same flight as the latest case were being contacted, isolated and retested, the ministry said on Sunday night.

Anyone who was at the Auckland Airport Countdown store last Wednesday, March 3, between 12.07pm and 1.22pm - is being asked to monitor their health for the next 10 days (until March 17).

If they feel unwell or develop symptoms, they should contact Healthline on 0800 358 5454, and get tested and stay at home until a negative test result is received.

The Herald also understands the flight attendant's close-contact partner played golf on Sunday with several friends at Remuera Golf Club.

He subsequently tested negative but a source told the Herald the man's golfing partners had been contacted yesterday by the Ministry of Health and told to self-isolate.

The ministry confirmed a household member played golf on Sunday morning, but they had subsequently tested negative, which meant they were not considered to have been infectious while at the golf course.

The ministry said there was also a health appointment that the new positive case made that was being assessed.

"All those attending the same clinic at the same time are being identified and will be contacted and provided specific health advice."

Air New Zealand chief medical officer Dr Ben Johnston tonight confirmed the case.

"The air crew member tested negative for Covid-19 on 23 and 28 February as part of the regular surveillance testing programme in place for international air crew. Their last duty was flight NZ90 from Tokyo to Auckland on 28 February, after which they returned a negative Covid-19 test.

"On 6 March (Saturday) they were tested again in Auckland as part of their regular surveillance testing and returned a positive test. The air crew member is now isolating following advice from the Ministry of Health."

Johnston said all other air crew who were considered close contacts were being advised and would be isolated and tested according to Ministry of Health's requirements.

"There are significant precautions in place for our crew operating to international destinations set out by the Ministry of Health, and we are confident that our people are following the protocols diligently," said Johnston.

"For Japan, these include taking private transport to and from their hotel, isolating in the hotel while on layover and wearing PPE while travelling to and from the hotel, through the airport and on board. Air crew are also subject to regular surveillance testing where they are tested up to once every seven days."

An Air New Zealand spokeswoman said the Ministry of Health did not require air crew to isolate on return from Japan, however, they were required to undergo a health assessment.

Countdown general manager health and safety Kiri Hannifin said they were contacted by the Auckland District Health Board this evening about a visit to Countdown's Auckland Airport store.

"The customer visited our store on Wednesday, 3 March from 12.37pm for approximately 30 minutes.

"The Ministry of Health has advised us that this visit is deemed low risk and casual contact exposure. Any customers who shopped in the store at this time aren't required to self isolate, but should get a test if they develop any symptoms.

"We are now going through our own processes, including giving the store a deep clean overnight as an extra precaution."

The Ministry of Health said the case had been identified on Sunday after a swab was taken on Saturday as part of routine surveillance testing.

"The person has moved to Auckland's quarantine facility," said the ministry.

"The Public Health initial assessment is there is low risk to the public due to Auckland being at alert level 3 for the period in which this case was back in New Zealand and were either in isolation or at home for most of that time," the Ministry of Health said.

University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker said the fact the case was picked up through routine testing and that the household members tested negative was good news.

"This is a case of infection of someone infected at the border. There has been very rapid follow-up of their three household members today who were tested and found to be negative. The other bit of good news is Auckland was at alert level 3 so they weren't out and about."

But he said throughout the pandemic it had been "a source of concern" that there was a different process for air crew returning to New Zealand.

"They have never gone through the standard process that other returning travellers do, which is 14-days' MIQ. There have been reasons for that, but it's obviously an area of vulnerability."

For members of the public, testing is available at six community testing centres (CTCs) throughout Auckland as well as at general practices and urgent care clinics.

"There is currently good capacity in the testing system, and the CTCs in Otara (South Auckland) and Wiri (South Auckland) have additional staff available to meet any increase in demand. Visit for testing locations," said the ministry.

The ministry said the air crew member was a frequent user of the Covid tracer app, which was helping staff "to identify potential exposure events and assess any risks from their activities".

"Specific advice will be provided to individuals identified as contacts by public health staff about the steps they need to take.

"Results from genome sequencing are expected on Tuesday and will help rule out any local transmission."

A further update would be provided today.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the system was designed to pick up infection among air crew very early on "and at this point, it looks like the infection has been picked up very early on.

"The case investigation will tell us whether there is anything we should be concerned about and we will get more information about that over the next 24 to 48 hours," he told the Herald.

Asked if there was any chance of Auckland going back into lockdown over the new case, Hipkins said: "It would have to be something very unexpected for that to be the case. I think it is highly unlikely that there'd be any need to escalate. It looks very contained."

Johnston said the airline was making "excellent progress" with the rollout of the vaccine for its frontline employees. It looked "forward to the added layer of protection this will offer to our aircrew on international duties".

E tū head of aviation, Savage, said Air New Zealand pilots and cabin crew employees received more detailed information on Sunday evening from the company about the new case.

"Other workers on the last flight they crewed are all being tested again. All air crew, pilots, and flight attendants, undergo weekly surveillance testing, and Auckland has been at alert level 3 since the positive test case arrived back from their last tour of duty.

"At this stage we are awaiting more detailed information but until genome sequencing and more information on the contact tracing is available, we will not be speculating on what has occurred and whether there is a need to further improve safety requirements.

"Receiving a positive test result is a stressful time for any worker, and this latest incident is a reminder of how important border safety and the rollout of vaccinations to border workers is."

Seven days of zero community cases

The news of the border case came as Aucklanders enjoyed the first day of level-2 freedom after a week of lockdown - and the rest of New Zealand returned to level 1.

There had been seven straight days of zero community cases.

There was one case in managed isolation announced yesterday - a person who arrived in the country on March 4 from South Africa via Qatar.

Some Kiwis hesitant about vaccine

Jo Kirman, Associate Professor of Immunology at Otago University, told Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB today that 14 per cent of New Zealanders being cautious about the vaccine was a large number - when experts wanted to get to 80 to 90 per cent of the population to get herd immunity.

Kirman said there were several unique aspects with the Covid-19 vaccine: There weren't a lot of people getting sick and New Zealand would have to open our borders at some stage.

They were new vaccines so there was some hesitancy with it but it helped that famous people, including the Queen, had received it.

Kirman said New Zealand's culture was diverse: While some people could see it as a good thing, others might want to see more proof of its safety.

The biggest thing that people need to understand, she said, was that it was a community effort. There were some who couldn't get vaccinations because they had allergic reactions or were under suppressive treatments for, for example, auto-immune diseases. "We have to protect the vulnerable in the population by reaching herd immunity ... it's not just am I going to protect myself or not."