In a significant setback to New Zealand’s efforts to keep the coronavirus from spreading in the community, health officials reported on Sunday three new locally acquired COVID-19 cases, the country’s first since late January.
New Zealand’s minister for COVID-19 response, Chris Hipkins, said the three cases were a couple and their daughter in Auckland, and that genomic testing was being conducted to see if the family’s infection was linked to any highly infectious variants.
Health authorities are still working to find out how the family contracted the virus and “whether COVID-19 could be out there in the community … or whether this is the start of what could be a chain of transmission,” he said.
As a precaution, the high school of the girl in the family will be closed on Monday and Tuesday, with COVID-19 testing facilities to be set up there, officials said.
Airlines have also been contacted, as the woman in the infected family works for an airline catering company, LSG Sky Chefs, where she mostly works in the laundry facilities, they said.
The new cases, the first since Jan. 24, forced Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to return to the capital Wellington, skipping an “Ending HIV Big Gay Out” event in Auckland that she was due to attend on Sunday afternoon.
“Our system has swung into action,” Hipkins told a hastily called media conference. “We are gathering all of the facts as quickly as we can. And the system that’s served us so well in the past is really gearing up to do so again.”
New Zealand—which had gone more than two months without infection before the January case—is to start inoculating its 5 million people against the new coronavirus on Feb. 20, after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine earlier than anticipated.
The country remains on alert level 1 for COVID-19, its lowest level, with no restrictions.
“No further consideration of change to alert levels has been taken at this point. We will collect more information before we would make any such decision,” Hipkins said.
New Zealand, with a population of 5 million, has reported a total of just over 2,300 cases and 25 deaths since the pandemic started.
By Sonali Paul. The Associated Press contributed to this report.