The novel coronavirus has many of us wondering how cautious we need to be - is it safe to travel, host visitors, even sneeze? Should we cancel that trip to Asia?
Medical and tourism officials encourage caution regarding the virus, now named COVID-19, while stressing chances of contracting it are low. And that mask you were considering? It probably won't do much good, anyway. Dawn Picken spoke with locals for an update on the virus, practical precautions, and what constitutes risk when it comes to this new illness.
Where in the World
It's important to note 99 per cent of COVID-19 cases are in China, where more than 50,000 people (some reports say 60,000+) have been infected by the virus. The World Health Organisation says more than 1300 people have died from the virus, and the number of COVID-19 cases abroad is climbing. New Zealand's Health Ministry says no cases have been confirmed here.
Bay of Plenty District Health Board officials late last month determined a person who died unexpectedly in Te Puke was unlikely to have had coronavirus. According to Toi te Ora Public Health's Medical Officer of Health Dr Neil de Wet "as the person had travelled recently to China, we have undertaken to rule out coronavirus as a possible cause, and also to provide reassurance to the family".
As of yesterday morning there were no confirmed cases of coronavirus (or 2019-nCoV) in New Zealand. According to the Ministry of Health, the likelihood of importing a case is high but the risk of an ongoing outbreak is low to moderate, but monitoring is ongoing.
While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China is very low.
Toi Te Ora said on its website it was providing information to returning travellers, and public health services will actively follow up any instances where coronavirus infection may be a possibility to assess the risk.
"This will help ensure anyone with infection is identified early and can be isolated and their contacts followed up so the infection does not spread," A media statement said.
Travellers who become sick within a month of their arrival are encouraged to seek medical advice and contact Healthline (for free) on 0800 611 116 or a doctor. It is important to mention recent travel to China and any known contact with someone with severe respiratory illness who has been in China.
NZME reported late last month four people had been tested for coronavirus at Rotorua Hospital. One person was assessed at the emergency department and found to have no symptoms indicating infection with the virus. Three other people were part of a tour group.
Gary Lees, director of nursing and midwifery at Lakes District Health Board is heading emergency management work on coronavirus. Lees says there are no suspected cases of coronavirus in the Lakes DHB area.
"Symptoms of coronavirus are similar to a range of other illnesses such as influenza and do not necessarily mean that a person has coronavirus or will be tested for it," Lees says.
He says ED staff are not routinely tested for the virus and that people presenting at the emergency department require full assessment, so a range of tests may be conducted.
"Clinicians are able to contact the infectious disease consultant if necessary as they would for any presentation with an infectious disease."
In response to a question about whether people should be worried about coronavirus, Lees' said "there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in New Zealand".
He says the Ministry of Health is monitoring the situation and is ready to respond to any suspected case.
"Current information shows most people with this virus are not severely ill."
Lees says the risk of an ongoing outbreak in New Zealand remains low and Lakes DHB has 'robust' plans in place for dealing with patients with any infectious disease.
Chinese Community Reaction
Lin Ma, of the New Zealand Chinese Friendship Society's Tauranga branch, says so far, no one from her family in mainland China has been affected by coronavirus. But she says there are issues with other Chinese people unable to come to New Zealand.
"People from China cannot enter the country and a number of Chinese students cannot come back to school. Furthermore, the cost of the schooling has already been paid and no refund is being made on this term."
Ma says a friend's niece had already received a student visa and paid for a flight, but can't return to New Zealand.
Another problem, she says, is Chinese people unable to return to China from New Zealand not being able to find accommodation.
"Due to flight cancellation since 18 February, accommodation does not want to rent to Chinese and they even do not want to refund back the money."
Ma says most sectors in China, like education, manufacturing and government, have shut down to protect people.
"Only one person is allowed to leave their home every three days for shopping for food." She says most people are working and studying online and staying home.
She says the Chinese government has devised a map showing concentrations of the virus.
The New Zealand China Friendship society in Tauranga Branch has organised medical materials to send to hospitals in China to support their work, says Ma. In addition, the branch is helping Chinese people in New Zealand with daily needs such as shopping while they're in isolation.
Coronavirus Travel Impact - Inbound
China represents five per cent of the international market visiting the Coastal Bay of Plenty which includes Tauranga City, Western Bay of Plenty District and Whakatāne District.
Tourism Bay of Plenty's head of destination marketing Kath Low says in the year ending November 2019, Chinese visitors spent $12m in the Coastal Bay of Plenty, including $10m in Tauranga.
"Total international visitor spend in the Coastal Bay of Plenty for the same period was $248m. Chinese visitor spend comprised five per cent of international visitor spend or one per cent of total visitor spend."
By comparison, the biggest international market in the Coastal Bay of Plenty is Australia, which Low says brought $71m to the local economy for the year ending November 2019.
"At this stage we are not seeing significant impact however we are monitoring it," Low says.
Destination Rotorua chief executive Michelle Templer says health and safety of locals and visitors remains the number one priority, so the organisation continues taking advice from the Ministry of Health and Tourism New Zealand.
"We know that some local businesses are being affected by the decreased number of Chinese arrivals to Rotorua over the short term and we're encouraging the industry to keep us up to date on impacts from the coronavirus on their business so that we can shape our destination response."
Templer says China has always been an important international market for Rotorua and remains a key part of a long term visitor strategy.
"China is the fourth highest source of international visitors to Rotorua, with Chinese tourists last year contributing nearly $40m to the Rotorua economy. We are focused on growing more free independent travel visitors from China coming to Rotorua in place of large tour groups, although group travel remains part of the mix."
Statistics from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for the year ending June 2019 show overall international visitor spend in Rotorua was $349m. Chinese visitor spending made up about 11 per cent of those dollars.
For many businesses, Templer says domestic visitors are their largest contributor. She says the organisation will continue to work in partnership with the local tourism and hospitality industry to promote Rotorua's offerings and increase visitor numbers from Australia, North America and other key international markets.
"I'd also encourage locals to support local businesses that might be impacted, and to show kindness to visitors and to each other so that we can continue to provide the manaakitanga that's such an important part of the Rotorua experience."
Student Trips Delayed
Education Tauranga is comprised of institutions from primary to tertiary schools that support international students. Regional relationship manager Melissa Gillingham says Chinese students from Tauranga schools have been "minimally affected" by coronavirus travel delays.
"The small few who have been delayed are continuing with their studies using online platforms such as Google Classroom."
Education Tauranga members recently took part in a video called "Wuhan, New Zealand is waiting for you". It features local students and staff members eager to welcome Chinese students. One on-screen graphic says: "The road is closed but we are staying connected".
At Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, executive director people, engagement and capability Keri-Anne Tane says she believes the travel restriction impacts 16 returning or new students currently in China. The institute won't disclose how many Chinese students are already on campus, citing "commercial confidence" reasons.
Tane says all staff travel to China has been postponed.
"Toi Ohomai is currently working to assess all those impacted to minimise disruption where possible. We're working closely with our international agents to change travel routes for those students who had/have travel plans that include a China transit."
A Waikato University spokeswoman says they were expecting around 800 new and returning students from China at all campuses, but only a "very small portion" of those students will study in Tauranga.
"We have been reaching out to all students and asking them to alert us to their situation so that we can provide appropriate support. We are working closely with Immigration New Zealand on this, and are monitoring the situation daily," the spokeswoman says.
The University has formed a Strategic Response Group continues to update its website and communicates with affected students. Online learning and assessing options may be included in a plan for students arriving later in the trimester.
Coronavirus Travel Impact - Outbound
House of Travel commercial director Brent Thomas says because the New Zealand trade ministry (MFAT) on its safetravel.govt.nz website advises Kiwis not to visit China at the moment, most people are not going.
Thomas says this time of year is slow for travel to the region, anyways.
"The travel period typically doesn't pick up until later in February. From Rotorua, we've had very few cancellations, but currently a number of people are postponing their travel."
Hong Kong, a popular transit hub for New Zealanders flying to Europe, has seen coronavirus cases. But Thomas says the season for European travel spans from late April to October.
Thomas says China is a small destination from a New Zealand outbound point of view as fewer than four per cent of Kiwis travel to China.
"What we're seeing is people coming in and inquiring about what does this mean for travel to other destinations." Despite that, Thomas says bookings across the area, including Rotorua, Pāpāmoa, Tauranga and Mount Maunganui have held up well the past two weeks.
He expects some corporate clients will likely curtail travel to China for a while and may defer their trip until later in the year.
"Corporate travel will get back to normal. It's just a matter of time before concerns may settle down to where people feel comfortable travelling to China itself."
Kiwis have one of the highest travel rates in the world, says Thomas, and past events such as 9-11 and terrorism in London have shown we'll keep travelling.
"People look forward to their holidays. They don't stop going, it's a matter of what's the other destination they'll go to." Thomas says travellers must decide for themselves whether to visit other Southeast Asian countries omitted from MFAT's 'do not travel' list.
A Flight Centre spokesperson echoed Thomas' sentiment that Kiwi leisure travellers are resilient and continuing to book holidays to unaffected destinations.
"Those with upcoming travel now unable to transit through affected areas are eager to rearrange, redirect or rebook, and we, of course, are assisting with this."
The spokesperson says China is a major destination for Kiwi business travel, so coronavirus has led to a "large number" of cancellations due to airlines halting flights.
What is Coronavirus?
The World Health Organization said it had chosen a name for the disease that made no reference to places, animals or people to avoid stigma. The new name is COVID-19. The acronym stands for coronavirus disease 2019, as the illness was first detected toward the end of last year. The virus was named for crown-like spikes protruding from its surface. It can infect people and animals, causing a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
How contagious is the virus?
According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
Where has the virus spread?
The virus originated in Wuhan, China, and has infected tens of thousands of people in China and at least two dozen other countries. There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand to date, but the likelihood of importing a case is high. The risk of an ongoing outbreak in New Zealand remains low, but the Ministry of Health is monitoring the situation closely.
How worried should I be?
While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low.
Who is working to contain the virus?
World Health Organization officials have praised China's aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
What if I'm traveling?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) is advising New Zealanders not to travel to China due to the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and the associated health risks and travel restrictions. MFAT says New Zealanders currently in China should leave at the earliest opportunity. Earlier this month, a government-chartered flight brought 198 passengers to New Zealand from Wuhan. The evacuees are being quarantined for 14 days at a Defence Force training base north of Auckland.
How do I keep myself and others safe?
Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying home when you're sick.
Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze with disposable tissues or clothing.
Avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.
Avoid public gatherings and events if you feel unwell.
What about a mask?
While demand for masks has surged, standard surgical masks are designed to block large particles and droplets, not small virus particles. Scientists and doctors studying the disease say surgical masks are typically more useful to people who are already sick because it prevents them from spreading an infection to others. But wearing a mask with virus particles on it for too long could actually put you and others at risk, because virus-carrying droplets can survive up to a week.
What do I do if I am sick right now?
For any coronavirus health advice and information and any questions about coronavirus self isolation phone Healthline 0800 358 5453. Open 24 hours seven days a week.
People feeling unwell with flu-like symptoms (fever and cough) wanting to see their GP are urged to call ahead and arrange for someone to come out to their vehicle. This is important to protect the health and safety of other surgery patients and health staff.
If you are unwell with flu-like symptoms and are in need of emergency medical treatment go to hospital, but please call ahead, and follow staff instructions to reduce the risk of infection to other patients and staff.
Patients with minor symptoms do not need to attend an ED. They do not require medical treatment other than simple self care advice.
Sources: The New York Times, NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, NZ Ministry of Health, Rotorua Lakes DHB
Ministry of Health https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov/novel-coronavirus-advice-travellers