Returnees at an Auckland isolation hotel who shared a bus to an exercise area with a positive Covid-19 case have had their stays extended.
The case, who tested positive on day 12, was among guests at the Grand Mercure in central Auckland who were bussed across town for exercise in Mt Albert.
They travelled from the United Kingdom via Singapore before arriving at the isolation hotel, the Ministry of Health said in a statement to Stuff.
Genome sequencing is underway to determine links to any other cases in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ), the ministry said.
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The practice of busing returnees at downtown hotels across the city for exercise was derided two months ago by an epidemiologist as “one of the stupidest practices” in the MIQ system, but has continued.
People who shared a bus to the exercise pens on Sunday afternoon with the case have now been told to remain in their rooms, and those set to leave on Monday were unable to do so.
The person was also on a bus on Friday, the ministry said.
“All 23 people who shared a bus ride with this person have been asked to stay until five days after their exposure – so, five days after 19 March or 21 March. They will also be tested again.”
A letter from Auckland District Health Board medical officer of health Mariam Parwaiz to one of the people who shared a bus with the case said they had been categorised as a “casual plus” contact.
They were required to remain in MIQ for five further days and would undertake a Covid-19 swab on March 26, the letter said.
“Your situation will be re-considered on March 27,” Parwaiz wrote.
“You have the right to instruct and consult a lawyer in accordance with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.”
One man who was preparing for release from the Grand Mercure on Monday, and who requested anonymity, said officials are yet to tell him how much longer he’ll have to stay.
A relative had taken a day off work to pick him up and he and his partner were set to start employment but now that was up in the air, he said.
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“All because of these stupid bus rides,” the man said.
The Ministry of Health said in a statement the Auckland Regional Public Health Service was investigating the source of the guest’s infection.
“The service is waiting for whole genome sequencing for any other possible links to other cases in the MIQ.
“Returnees are routinely tested on Day 12 as the infection can take longer to develop in some people.”
Daily convoys of buses run from several hotels in downtown Auckland to a fenced sports ground at the Unitec Mount Albert campus.
Soldiers and hotel security muster returnees into one of several pens, resembling those used in sheep dog trials, where they can walk around in circles or sit in the middle of the field, relaxing or partaking in yoga.
The field is double fenced and divided into four pens with interior fencing.
University of Otago epidemiologist Nick Wilson told Stuff in January authorities weren’t recognising how infectious the virus was and transporting residents for exercise was “one of the stupidest practices in MIQ”.
“Even though mask wearing on buses will help – masks are not perfect,” Wilson said.
“The authorities are not recognising how infectious this pandemic virus is – and with the new variants it is even more so.”
He said studies showed Covid-19 spreads more easily in confined spaces, such as buses.
“This has to be one of the stupidest practices in MIQ along with shared smoking areas and double bunking Russian mariners,” Wilson said.
An MIQ spokesman said in a statement there were no plans to stop bussing returnees to exercise areas.
“However, the Ministry of Health and Managed Isolation and Quarantine continue to regularly review our policies and procedures to ensure they remain fit for purpose.
“MIQ is undertaking an internal investigation to determine what happened in this case and what improvements can be made to strengthen our processes.”
“We understand this disruption to returnees’ plans will be distressing. However, the safety of all returnees, our staff and the wider community remains our top priority.”