Covid 19 outbreak: The weekend Delta came to Coromandel

David Fisher
David Fisher

Senior writer, NZ Herald

It had all the makings of a perfect weekend escape.

They left Devonport on Friday and went south, drove across the Hauraki Plains and along the winding coastal road to Coromandel Town.

Two nights away, dinners and breakfast at a new favourite cafe and an evening that included a spot at a crowded local bar watching the All Blacks' historic thumping of the Wallabies.

It's a weekend break now familiar to the country after those two nights away became a travelogue of "locations of interest" marking out those potentially exposed to the Delta variant of Covid-19.

Also, though, it carries insights and lessons into our relationship with the virus - including how the actions of the 58-year-old Devonport man peeled back the layer of complacency to reveal Covid-19's subversive spread.

They rolled into town early last Friday evening, stopped at the pub for a drink and then crossed the road to Umu Cafe for dinner.

There's a cheery mundanity to the events of a weekend escape, captured by the diligent Devonport visitor through the Covid-19 app. It shows they emerged mid-morning Saturday, visiting the local BP presumably to fuel up after the drive from Auckland.

Next stop was a quick visit to the curious and wonderful Driving Creek Railway, which features train tracks curving and looping up the hill above the pottery studio through native bush planted over the past 50 years.

It was a quick visit - 20 minutes - before a quick return to town for morning tea. Then it was back to Driving Creek, which offers guided tours taking an hour and 15 minutes. This time the Devonport couple stayed long enough to take the tour.

From there, they headed to Colville, the tiny seaside village about 20 minutes north of Coromandel. The visitor from Devonport scanned again at the family-owned farm shop and cafe, Hereford 'n' A Pickle, where they stayed long enough for lunch.

And then the return trip, back through Coromandel to Tara's Beads, the jewellery store and studio at the south of town. It was a quick visit - they spent longer at their next stop, Richardsons Real Estate.

This visit, like others, is easy to imagine. We've all done it on a weekend away - stopping and browsing properties for sale. Were they looking for a holiday home? Or an eventual retirement property?

A gap follows before dinner. Did they take a beach or bush walk? Or return to accommodation to freshen up and chill out with a book?

Coromandel cat Helen Clark (he/him) usually has the run of the street demanding food. Now everything is closed. Photo / Supplied
Coromandel cat Helen Clark (he/him) usually has the run of the street demanding food. Now everything is closed. Photo / Supplied

It was Umu Cafe for dinner. "The girls said the couple were lovely," says owner Josie Fraser, 45. They chatted to staff, such "awesome" customers they were instantly memorable. "As soon as they said Devonport [for the positive case], they knew exactly who they were."

After dinner, the couple crossed the road to the Star & Garter, arriving about the time the gastropub started to pack out for the rugby test that evening. Pin Te Huia, 59, got there about 5pm - it's his local - to watch with a group of friends.

He reckons easily 80 people were there - a mix of local and unfamiliar faces. The baby shower at the restaurant next door spilled into the pub after they had eaten.

Then a group of about 20 from Auckland turned up just before kick-off. There wasn't room so - small town, big hearts - Te Huia's partner Melissa McLean got on the phone and rang the pub down the road to see if they had room. They did, and the group that had crowded into the bar spilled out onto the street and disappeared into the night.

Te Huia remembers now two of those unfamiliar faces were at the leaner next to his and wonders if it was the visiting couple. If so, they were among those watching the game from inside the small bar area.

"Come kick-off and away it went," says Te Huia, who was off to get tested when he spoke to the Herald. There was the noise and chatter of a busy small space, the raised voices of those needing to be heard, and then the rugby.

"The two intercept tries - everyone was cheering," he recalls. It set the spirits high and kept the roar of the crowd buoyant. And packed. "You look up and the bar - it's three deep."

Perfect conditions, says Siouxsie Wiles, microbiologist and associate professor at the University of Auckland.

Inside the Star & Garter gastropub in Coromandel. Photo / Supplied
Inside the Star & Garter gastropub in Coromandel. Photo / Supplied

Wiles, science communicator extraordinaire, explains that Covid-19 is transmissible through the air and when we speak, our mouths emit the virus into the air.

"When you're in confined spaces people are more likely to breathe it in. This lingers in the air."

Add to that other factors - that it was a rugby game and that we are dealing with the Delta strain of the virus.

Wiles points to "super spreader" events seen overseas involving choirs. "This is why we've seen clusters in churches." Expect similar outcomes when cheering or shouting in a bar.

The reason for this is not that the virus is expelled further. Rather, the force of exhalation that comes with singing or cheering expels more of it from the body. The passage followed by air expelled from the body passes across the place where the virus nestles.

So when Rieko Ioane intercepted a pass in the opening minutes of the game, his burst down Eden Park to score the first try created perfect conditions.

"If you were cheering on, you would definitely be shedding more virus."

It's a phenomenon seen brought on by sporting events in other countries, says University of Auckland professor Shaun Hendy, who has been modelling the spread of Covid-19. And, he says, it's not from actually attending games in person.

"There's certainly evidence from overseas that sporting events, everybody going to bars to watch sporting events, is really a problem."

Coromandel Town on the first day of Level 4 lockdown. Photo / George Novak
Coromandel Town on the first day of Level 4 lockdown. Photo / George Novak

Not that anyone knew that last Saturday as the All Blacks romped to a historic win over the Wallabies.

Te Huia says he hadn't given it any thought. There was rugby, there was cheering. It was good times and great vibes, even though he wasn't drinking because of work the next day.

When the great plays were made, the whole bar - it seemed - rose to its collective feet. Te Huia says there weren't too many Australian supporters but those at the Garter that night even started cheering for the Wallabies once the lead had stretched out.

And then the final whistle blew and, Te Huia remembers, the whole bar pretty much emptied out. His evening out and recollection match with the "locations of interest" from the Ministry of Health - the Devonport couple were shown leaving at 9pm.

Next morning, they were back at Umu. "Two times for dinner and once for breakfast," recalls Fraser, delighted her place brought such pleasure to a couple of Coromandel visitors.

Last stop on the way out of town was Tara's Beads, again. It's easy to imagine that quick look the day before became an overnight itch that turned into a determination to buy a memento on the way home.

So they retraced their route, stopping around lunchtime at Woodturners Cafe at Mangatarata, just out of Ngatea, before heading home.

And then came Monday. Our man from Devonport felt unwell. Whatever symptoms he experienced, he sought out his GP and got a test. On Tuesday, results showed he had Covid-19 and his likely infectious period began the Thursday before the great weekend getaway.

When news broke, eyes turned on Coromandel as if it were the centre of the outbreak. A few days and 20 more new cases, we know now it was a symptom of a problem centred in Auckland.

What has emerged is a picture of almost model pandemic behaviour through the actions of the case that gave New Zealand early warning of a Delta outbreak. It was acknowledged again by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during her press conference on Day Two of lockdown.

It was a press conference in which the public were told the strain of virus had been traced back to someone who arrived in New Zealand on August 7 and tested positive two days later. The exact links and jumps from there are not yet known, but there will not be many.

Ardern again thanked the man from Devonport. "If it wasn't for you getting tested when you did, this could be a much, much more difficult situation."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a press conference at Parliament on Tuesday. Photo / File
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a press conference at Parliament on Tuesday. Photo / File

Absolutely, says scientist Wiles. "The person who went and got tested deserves a gold star."

And the same in Coromandel, where the main street is patrolled by a gorgeous ginger cat called Helen Clark who demands food at every doorway he encounters.

Fraser at Umu uses words including "amazing" and "fantastic" to describe the visitor from Devonport. "This gentleman was really responsible," says Fraser.

"You've got to take your hat off to the fella who signed in everywhere," says Te Huia. "It's just great everyone knew where he had been. If he hadn't signed into the pub, we'd have no idea. Everybody has got a bit lax on that. Even me."