A mates' trip to New York, a rugby team and a stag party - NZ's 16 Covid-19 clusters

Alanah Eriksen
Alanah Eriksen

Live news managing editor

Many of them are linked to big events, described as "a mixing bowl for infection" by the Ministry of Health.

There are two weddings, a stag do, a St Patrick's Day party, an Air Force rugby tournament and a cattle conference that attracted people from 18 countries.

A third are where some of our most vulnerable live - rest homes - and have killed 13 residents, two thirds of the country's total toll.

One came from a cruise ship, where thousands of passengers - many in their golden years - mixed and mingled for 11 days, eating together in the ship's dining rooms and at buffets, before being allowed to head home without health checks, risking others within their local networks.

There is also the trip to New York by a group of Wellington friends, a Christchurch compost company, an Auckland facility caring for people with intellectual disabilities and a school.

These are New Zealand's 16 significant coronavirus clusters.

There are 587 people who have been linked to one of the 16 clusters - 40 per cent of our 1469 total confirmed or probable cases. Sixteen of the country's 19 deaths have been linked to one. And they do not discriminate by area, with cases in Auckland and down to Bluff. Eleven are in the North Island and five in the South Island.

Ten have been caused by overseas exposure. The source of six is unknown.

There are more clusters around New Zealand - including one at an Auckland boat builder after an employee returned from a Colorado skiing holiday - but the ministry now only publicly reports those with more than 10 cases.

Defined as being connected through transmission and including people who are not all part of the same household, the number of significant clusters has grown despite New Zealand being in lockdown and our borders being closed to non-residents.

That's because people have still needed to access public places such as supermarkets and because many don't show symptoms but can still infect others, writes Arindam Basu, Associate Professor, Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury.

When lockdown ends tonight, there will be more people on our roads, in public places and at work and at school, increasing the risk of new infections.

But contact tracing has increased to identify clusters - and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has urged New Zealanders to keep a diary of their movements in the hope it will help.

"Contact tracers start with an index person and track everyone who was connected to that individual to interrupt any forward transmission as the contacts are isolated," says Basu.

"Because of continued contact tracing, we expect the number of new cases to remain low and with border controls preventing imported cases, any emerging new clusters should be able to be detected and contained rapidly. This intervention is central to Covid-19 elimination in New Zealand."

Here is everything we know about New Zealand's clusters.

1. Bluff wedding - 98 cases, 2 deaths

The bride and groom considered postponing their wedding as concerns over Covid-19 grew. Some guests decided not to attend.

The Bluff wedding cluster is New Zealand's largest. Photo / 123rf
The Bluff wedding cluster is New Zealand's largest. Photo / 123rf

But as the groom's father could not make a later date, they decided to go ahead on March 21.

Seventy guests travelled from around the country to attend, greeting each other with elbow touches and waves at the ceremony in Invercargill, where the couple live, before the party moved onto the reception in Bluff. It was held at Oyster Cove Restaurant and Bar, a popular venue atop a hillside overlooking the sea at Stirling Point, the South Island's farthest location south accessible by road and the home of the country's historical lookout.

One of the guests was an Air New Zealand steward who had returned from the United States days before. He was not unwell during the reception but was believed to be asymptomatic and potentially carrying the virus.

The newlyweds had a gathering of family and guests the next day and the steward was said to be coughing and gargling salt water.

He became sick when he returned home from the wedding but Air NZ would later say he had gargled the salt water to ease discomfort due to a dental issue.

Four days later, the bride and groom learned of the outbreak when a guest told them they had tested positive for Covid-19.

Chrisanthos (Christo) Tzanoudakis, 87, was the father of the groom.
Chrisanthos (Christo) Tzanoudakis, 87, was the father of the groom.

The next day, the groom's father, 87-year-old Chrysanths (Christo) Tzanoudakis, fell ill and was later admitted to Wellington Hospital. He died on April 10.

The newlyweds also became unwell, as did many of their guests.

The disease was spread to employees at Invercargill City Council, where the bride works. On April 21, one employee's husband, Alister Peter Brookland, known as Barney, died at his Invercargill home.

Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield confirmed Brookland was "indirectly" connected to the wedding.

Oyster Cove in Bluff.
Oyster Cove in Bluff.

Now, the number of people who had Covid-19 in the cluster is bigger than the number of guests who attended the wedding.

Read more: Air NZ 'deeply upset' by Bluff outbreak

2. Marist College - 93 cases

In mid-March, a teacher at the Catholic girls' college in the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert was off work with symptoms similar to coronavirus.

Marist College. Photo / File
Marist College. Photo / File

Events had been held at the school recently including a Fiafia night on March 14, and an extended whānau meeting on March 18.

The teacher was eventually swabbed on March 19 and principal Raechelle Taulu sent a note out advising parents that if a case was confirmed, it was likely the school would close temporarily.

On March 20, a father of one of the girls, Geoff Muliaga Brown, fell ill after attending an event at the school but was denied a test because his symptoms weren't severe and he didn't meet the criteria. He would later be admitted to hospital.

On March 22, the teacher's case was confirmed. At that stage, all of New Zealand's cases had been linked to overseas travel but the teacher hadn't been overseas, or in contact with anyone who'd recently returned home.

Raechelle Taulu, principal of Marist College.
Raechelle Taulu, principal of Marist College.

The school sent a letter to parents saying it would close for a minimum of three days and the close contacts of the teacher were self-isolating. A few days later, the Prime Minister announced all schools were to close anyway as the country went into lockdown.

More and more people contracted the disease including students, staff and parents. Taulu also got it.

There are now 93 cases connected to the school.

Read more: Inside the Marist College cluster

3. St Patrick's Day event - 76 cases, 1 death

The party was billed as the "pot of gold" you needed to celebrate St Paddy's - with green Heineken, a jig-off, a band, and festive staff.

"Let's get sham rocked!" The advertisement for the Redoubt Bar and Eatery in Matamata said.

On March 17, the event went ahead.

A couple of days later, a staff member from the bar began to feel sick. On March 23, the Redoubt shut its doors for the lockdown.

By March 29, Matamata had nine confirmed cases. It was added to the list of clusters.

On April 2, Dr Kevin Snee, Waikato DHB chief executive, said they were no longer solely focusing on St Patrick's Day.

The Redoubt Bar in Matamata. Photo / Alan Gibson
The Redoubt Bar in Matamata. Photo / Alan Gibson

"All cases have been linked either directly or indirectly to the Redoubt Bar. While the focal point remains the St Patrick's Day celebration at the bar, it appears there was also some transmission at that site during the surrounding days as well."

Days later, Matamata man and British World War II veteran Denis Albert Moore, 94, became unwell. He was eventually taken to hospital where he died from the disease on April 16.

He is believed to have contracted the virus from a relative who works at a different hospitality venue in town.

The cluster is now linked to 76 cases.

4. Rosewood Rest Home - 54 cases, 10 deaths

The first case at the 64-bed specialist dementia home in Christchurch was confirmed on April 3 when the country was already in lockdown.

Rosewood rest home in Christchurch. Photo / File
Rosewood rest home in Christchurch. Photo / File

Given strict visiting restrictions under level 4, Canterbury DHB believe a staff member brought the disease in.

Three days later there were at least 12 cases.

On April 6, 20 residents were transferred to Burwood Hospital to try and control the disease. By April 9, the cluster had its first death, a woman aged 90.

Now it is by far New Zealand's deadliest cluster with 10 residents dead, eight at the hospital and two on site. They include:

• A woman in her 90s.

Former boxing coach, Bernard Pope, 78.

Boxing coach Bernard Pope who died from Covid-19. Photo / Supplied
Boxing coach Bernard Pope who died from Covid-19. Photo / Supplied

• A man in his 80s on April 13.

• A man in his 90s.

• A man in his 80s.

• A man in his 90s.

• A woman in her 80s.

• A woman in her 80s.

• A man in his 70s.

• A man in his 60s on April 24.

5. Auckland stag party - 39 cases

Before the March 26 lockdown, a stag party was held in Auckland.

It became a cluster, with people who were at the function passing on the disease within their household bubbles.

On April 14, the party was publicly outed as a cluster by Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay. Up until then it had only been named as "a private function".

Thirty-nine cases have now been linked to the cluster but details have been scant.

One of New Zealand's cluster's is linked to a stag party. Photo / File
One of New Zealand's cluster's is linked to a stag party. Photo / File

6. World Hereford Conference - 38 cases

About 120 people from 18 different countries descended on New Zealand for the Hereford breeders' conference on March 4.

Four hundred people from 18 countries attended the World Hereford Conference. Photo / File
Four hundred people from 18 countries attended the World Hereford Conference. Photo / File

They did a quick tour through the North Island before joining the conference in Queenstown, which started on March 9 and went for four days.

It was attended by 400 delegates and at that time, New Zealand only had two or three cases.

NZ Hereford Association president Colin Corney has said they had been checking Ministry of Health advice as the conference went ahead.

"We asked people if they were not well to consider not attending, and during this time there I would have shaken hands with 500 people probably."

The schedule included presentations at the Millenium Hotel, a gala dinner, visits to various Hereford farms and the Wanaka A & P Show, which was attended by 40,000 people.

After the conference, Corney took a group on a tour through the lower South Island.

"And then on Tuesday, March 17, I got a phone call from my colleague in Australia to advise that a person that had attended back on the Tuesday and Wednesday had tested positive.

"I had four coaches, about 150-odd people. And when I got off the phone, I parked all those coaches up … We were having a fantastic day, the South Island was putting on beautiful weather, lovely countryside, beautiful animals. I got the phone call, so I parked everyone up in a wool shed, no-one was allowed to leave until I got some advice."

He rang the helpline and was advised to drive to the conference members' accommodation. Health officials called him back before they got back to the accommodation and advised him "it was unlikely that this person was in a contagious state during the two days they were with us".

After returning from the lower South Island tour, Corney said he had a meeting with his general manager and the Ministry of Health.

"They advised us at that point that our risk factor was low … We said we were thinking [tour members] could go for a coach tour around Christchurch, and were advised at that time that's fine.

"We just went around the city, we didn't do much else but go from the hotel to the to the coach."

On March 20, Dinamics Destination Management, which ran the conference, went into liquidation.

About 300 people were swabbed at a Queenstown supermarket. Photo / Matthew Mckew
About 300 people were swabbed at a Queenstown supermarket. Photo / Matthew Mckew

On April 16, a Queenstown Pak 'n' Save became the first site in the country to undergo community testing - despite the district's small population - to examine whether there has been community transmission.

7. CHT St Margarets rest home - 34 cases, 3 deaths

Early in April, the Te Atatu rest home confirmed its first positive Covid-19 result. Visitors were already barred from entering the rest home.

CHT St Margarets rest home on Te Atatu Peninsula. Photo / Dean Purcell
CHT St Margarets rest home on Te Atatu Peninsula. Photo / Dean Purcell

On April 14, the cluster was revealed to the public and by that stage, there were 15 confirmed cases.

It included people within the home and in the community, all linked by transmission and CHT Healthcare Trust chief executive Max Robins said at the time it was unclear how the virus got into St Margarets.

A number of staff members went into self-isolation due to close contact with confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Three ambulances leave St Margarets. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
Three ambulances leave St Margarets. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

To help with the staffing shortage, on the weekend of April 17, 20 residents were taken to Waitākere Hospital.

On April 20, a resident in her 70s died at the hospital. She had underlying health conditions.

On April 24, another woman in her 70s who had underlying conditions died at the hospital.

A third resident, a woman in her 90s with underlying health conditions, has also died.

The ministry said hospital staff were able to support daily visits by a family member in the days prior to their passing.

8. West Auckland - 30 cases

A cluster is believed to started in the West Auckland community in March.

Some of the cases involve staff members at Spectrum Care, an Auckland facility caring for people with intellectual disabilities. They are believed to have contracted the disease in the community and not at work. The centre was already closed at that point and no clients have been affected.

Five staff members have been infected with the remainder in the community.

On April 11, the ministry named the facility as being a cluster but Spectrum Care chief executive Sean Stowers expressed frustration saying they did not know they were part of an outbreak.

Spokesman Justin Walsh said the Deputy Director-General Disability, Adri Isbister, called Stowers and retracted the statement and apologised.

Bloomfield the next day clarified the cluster "originated in the community and subsequently led to an infection of a person linked to Spectrum Care".

9. Ruby Princess Cruise Ship - 22 cases

The ship set off from Sydney on March 8 with guests eating together in the dining hall and at buffets, sharing the pools and sitting side-by-side at onboard shows.

An infected waiter or someone who handles food is likely to have spread coronavirus, NSW Police would later reveal.

The ship visited Fiordland, Dunedin, Akaroa and Wellington before reaching its final destination of Napier on March 15.

It cut short its final leg as New Zealand announced the travel ban, arriving back in Sydney before dawn on March 19.

The Ruby Princess cruise ship.
The Ruby Princess cruise ship.

About a dozen passengers reported feeling unwell and had swabs taken for Covid-19. But almost 2700 passengers were allowed to leave the ship at Sydney Harbour, catching trains, buses and overseas flights to get home.

Napier couple Andrew and June Ranyard - among 56 New Zealanders on board - would later say they had no clue there was an outbreak on board the ship when they disembarked and flew home.

"We weren't told by any of the Princess team that there were infections on board."

They started to experience coronavirus symptoms the next day.

At least 18 passengers from the ship have died and hundreds of confirmed cases in Australia have been linked to the vessel.

Twenty-two people in New Zealand have tested positive. Some are residents at Gladys Mary Care Home in Napier. The first resident become infected after being visited by a relative who been in contact with passengers.

NSW police announced a criminal investigation into the ship's operator, Carnival Australia, earlier this month, while Shine Lawyers in Australia have mounted a class action against the company, saying passengers were not advised of the risk and were not monitored for symptoms.

New Zealand is also exploring taking legal action.

June and Andrew Ranyard caught coronavirus after their latest trip on the Ruby Princess. Photo / Supplied
June and Andrew Ranyard caught coronavirus after their latest trip on the Ruby Princess. Photo / Supplied

10. George Manning Lifecare and Village - 20 cases

On April 2, a resident of the Christchurch rest home tested positive, while a second test returned a positive result the following day.

At that stage, Christchurch had only one cluster identified - Rosewood rest home which had not yet been named - and on April 5, Norah Barlow, chief executive of Heritage Lifecare, which owns and operates the village, told media she was confident the facility was not the cluster.

The village eventually had four confirmed cases - two residents and two staff - and 15 probable cases (their tests had come back negative but they showed symptoms early on).

On April 11, Ministry of Health director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay named the rest home as a cluster at the daily press conference.

Barlow said at the time it was frustrating she was only told the home was a cluster 10 minutes before they were named.

They had just sent out a family newsletter.

"We were in shock because we had just sent out a family letter saying there have been no new cases and it made us look like a total liar," she said.

George Manning Lifecare
George Manning Lifecare

"They named George Manning as the cluster, which caused all kinds of issues. [It] worried people, worried families, worried staff members thinking oh my God, we've got more [cases] but we haven't got any more and we're just reaching the point in time where we've actually been advised by the [Canterbury] DHB that everyone can come out of isolation.

"We know nothing else about anyone testing positive."

By April 15, people within the cluster were released from isolation after more than two weeks.

11. Group travel to New York - 16 cases

A group of mostly middle-aged Wellingtonian friends who travelled together on a trip to New York are among the significant clusters.

Detail on the cluster is scant.

A group of mostly middle-aged Wellingtonians who travelled together on a trip to New York are among the significant clusters. Photo / Getty Images
A group of mostly middle-aged Wellingtonians who travelled together on a trip to New York are among the significant clusters. Photo / Getty Images

12. Air Force rugby team - 16 cases

The RNZAF men's and women's rugby teams attended the Anzus Shield rugby tournament in Denver, Colorado, in mid-March.

The competition was to run from March 12 to 21, but was cancelled after three days due to the global spread of Covid-19.

Teams from Australia and the United States were also present.

"Our men and women were eager to retain the title, and the Aussies and Kiwis were excellent guests," the US Air Force said on its Facebook page.

"The teams were even treated to a haka at one of the only gatherings. We will keep you informed when we find a suitable time to reconvene. Ruck On."

A spokeswoman says none of the positive cases required hospital care, they had been self-isolating across various Defence Force locations and private residences and had all recovered.

"All cases were notified to the local Medical Officer of Health as required under the Health Act 1956. Positive cases were managed by Regional Public Health in accordance with the Ministry of Health policy and guidance.

"Contact tracing was conducted by the Ministry of Health and all close contacts deemed at risk including any work place contacts were notified and appropriately managed."

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13. Atawhai Assisi Rest Home and Hospital - 15 cases

On March 10, a nurse visiting from Australia went to see her father at the rest home on the outskirts of Hamilton.

She tested positive for the disease when she returned home. Her father showed no symptoms but was tested because of his contact with his daughter. On March 22, his test showed he was positive.

Atawhai Assisi Home & Hospital
Atawhai Assisi Home & Hospital

A group of 27 staff members who had contact with the resident were stood down but several staff also tested positive.another six self-isolated the following week and a call was put out for volunteers.

Fifteen people with Covid-19 are now isolated with the cluster.

14. Ellerslie Gardens Lifecare - 13 cases

A nurse returned from Zimbabwe on March 10 and - due to there being no travel restrictions or self-isolation rules in place - returned to work at the Auckland rest home on March 15 for her night shift at the rest home.

She tested positive for the disease on March 21 and 11 residents who had close contact with the nurse were put into isolation.

Ellerslie Gardens Lifecare
Ellerslie Gardens Lifecare

An 86-year-old resident started showing Covid-19 symptoms on March 26 but was not tested, a family member told Stuff.

It was only after they were taken to hospital on April 7 for suspected renal failure that they were confirmed to have the disease.

Now, 13 people with the virus have been linked to the cluster.

15. Wellington wedding - 13 cases

The wedding was held on Saturday, March 14, at Boomrock Lodge, on 650ha of farmland in Ohariu Valley.

One of New Zealand's clusters stems from a wedding in Wellington. Photo / File
One of New Zealand's clusters stems from a wedding in Wellington. Photo / File

It is understood a guest, who was unaware she was infected, had travelled abroad.

The wedding's DJ later told the Herald he first became aware of the situation when he received a text from the groom, followed by a phone call from a nurse.

He said his ears pricked up on the night when people were thanked for coming "far and wide" during the wedding speeches.

"I just took note of it, but even back then it [Covid-19] wasn't really as big as it is now, it was still bubbling way and happening overseas and still heading our way really."

To his relief, the DJ had set up his equipment on a balcony outside and was at least a couple of metres away from guests during the evening. He has not developed any symptoms earlier this month.

On April 25, the Ministry said the cluster was "now regarded as closed" as there had been two incubation periods (28 days) since a case was notified.

16. Living Earth - 10 cases

A team member at the Christchurch compost company tested positive for the disease on March 22.

They contracted the virus from an international tourist they were exposed to on March 12, who tested positive when they returned to their home country.

A team member at Christchurch compost company Living Earth tested positive for the disease on March 22.
A team member at Christchurch compost company Living Earth tested positive for the disease on March 22.

There are now 10 cases connected to the cluster but Living Earth's owner, Waste Management, says only four of the cases are team members at the company.

"Every one of those team members have now been classified as recovered by health officials."

- Additional reporting, Radio New Zealand, Otago Daily Times