Remember, remember the fifth of November… Remember? For Waiheke’s Kate Tomson, she can’t forget it.
Because that’s the day she came face-to-face with the harsh realities of New Zealand’s fragile Covid-free status.
Kate works in the city. She grabs a coffee from the bar opposite where she works most days, signing in manually and meticulously updating her diary of where she’s been and when.
On Saturday the seventh, she read in the Herald that there had been a potential community transmission of coronavirus in downtown Auckland. “Case A” – a uniformed member of the Defence Force, who had been working at the Jet Park managed quarantine and isolation hotel near the airport – had tested positive on the Friday afternoon.
On Saturday afternoon Kate took a phone call at home on Waiheke. It was the track-and-trace team contacting all those who had been in and around Mezze Bar in Durham Lane, where the soldier had had brunch between 11am and 1pm that Thursday.
The risk was real – and what’s more Kate had a soar throat and had felt pretty tired that week.
By that Saturday, Case A (who had tested negative on 4 November after a routine swab the previous day) had already attended a workshop on “Army values” alongside around 250 other Defence Force staff at the Waldorf St Martins apartments and passed the virus on to a colleague who’d flown up from Wellington (Case B), who in turn passed it on to another colleague (Case C) when they met up for a Malaysian lunch back at the Little Penang restaurant on The Terrace in Wellington on Friday.
Initially, Kate’s phone conversion determined she wasn’t enough of a contact to test or isolate – until she mentioned the soar throat. And then it was all go.
She isolated, took an “urgent server number” and walked to and from the Oneroa testing station on the Sunday morning to have that uncomfortable swab shoved up her nose. Her negative result came through on Monday, but she was still told to stay home another 24 hours or so to be on the safe side.
Kate says she was “highly impressed” by all those connected to the tracking, tracing and testing – both because of their actions and the care she received. Yes, she lost the best part of a week’s income as she dealt with the scare – but the system designed to pick up any stray cases worked.
By the end of November, that “Defence Force cluster” had been limited to six cases with Case F taking 12 days (and one previous negative result) before testing positive, and Cases D and E (neighbours in an apartment block in Vincent Street, central Auckland) determined to have a direct genomic link to Case A although no obvious physical interaction.
That Auckland didn’t go into lockdown in November, that we’re not coping with the see-saw restrictions and regulations of, say, a Sydney or Melbourne, or – God forbid – the hellish, rampant spread and toll of London or Los Angeles, is down to three things: our tight border controls, the fast and accurate scientific work that ensured we understood the genetic makeup of Case A’s Covid-19 strain, and the dedicated and honest response from people like Kate who kept accurate records of where they’d been.
Which is why it beggars belief that – just two months on from the Defence Force cluster – so few of us are using the Covid Tracer app. Waiheke is packed to the brim with folk from all over the country, travelling back and forth on ferries and enjoying our level 1 beaches, restaurants, shops and accommodation – and yet all this bustle and holiday excitement seems undisturbed by the lingering threat of a deadly pandemic lurking at our gates.
Two months ago, New Zealand averaged just short of 880,000 Covid Tracer app scans per day from a total pool of 2.4 million users – on New Year’s Day that had fallen to just short of 278,000 scans and the average between December 23 and January 4 was a paltry 346,500.
Just at the point when we’re most vulnerable and most scattered around holiday hotspots such as Waiheke, we seem to be at our most careless. Minister for the Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins called it “woeful” and microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles called it “frustrating” – for our tourism-dependent Waiheke economy, for the families who would seriously struggle financially through another lockdown and for those of us who’ve first-hand experience of the catastrophic effects of this virus overseas, it seems wilfully negligent not to play such a small but utterly vital role in keeping it at bay. • James Belfield