An unvaccinated Auckland couple are regretting not protecting themselves after they're believed to have contracted Covid-19 from a lift button in their apartment block.
The couple, who do not want to be identified, say they are now battling horrific and ongoing series of symptoms, which include everything from fever and searing headaches to not being able to stand up straight.
However, experts say the likelihood of a fomite transmission (surface or an object) is unlikely as Covid is predominately spread through aerosols - which linger longer in the air - or droplets.
The pair live in Auckland central's Volt Apartments, where the Herald understands a third Covid case, a woman, was discovered on Tuesday.
Initially, the couple were told by the Ministry of Health that they had tested positive for Covid, but then the man's partner was told on Saturday that she was negative.
When contacted, and despite being given privacy waivers from the couple, the ministry said it doesn't release information about test results.
"Unless there are compelling public health reasons to do so, wherever possible, the Ministry of Health does not provide specific information about individuals, including their test results.
"Close contacts of those with Covid-19, such as household members, are also required to self-isolate and are sometimes asked to do so at a managed quarantine facility. This happens when it is not safe or suitable for the individual to self-isolate at home."
The man said their contradicting test results confused them as they were both experiencing the same symptoms.
"I just thought I'd better get a test on Wednesday, the 20th.
"I got the results on Friday. It took me ringing and chasing it up to see if I had a positive result."
Given how badly he was feeling, the news he'd tested positive wasn't a surprise.
"It was about what I was expecting to be honest."
His partner got tested the same day and started experiencing symptoms the day after he did.
The pair then followed the Ministry's advice and stayed inside their apartment.
"On Saturday another person called and asked about our medical history. Because I have a previous heart condition they didn't want me isolating at home so here we are at Jet Park.
"They told her she was negative. And yet she's symptomatic and here with me."
He said they hadn't yet been re-tested and believed they were taking it as a "given" that she was positive.
"But there's something not right with that," he said.
He was "really surprised" by how well Jet Park was being run and it was a lot more comfortable and "a lot less invasive".
The food was also "absolutely spectacular".
"We had scotch fillet for dinner last night - haven't had scotch fillet for years." Unfortunately for them, they couldn't taste anything as they'd lost their sense of taste and smell due to Covid.
"I could tell I was eating it but that was about it."
He said they put a sign up on their apartment door on Tuesday telling people to stay away as they had Covid symptoms.
"Surface transmission from the lift"
As for how they caught it, the man claimed the contact tracing team had nutted it down to a likely surface contamination off the lift buttons or handrails.
"That's what the liaison told me, that it's most likely that I caught it from the handrails or the buttons in the lift because we can't find anywhere that I've been where there's been an active case."
The pair had only left their apartment three times in the preceding three weeks; two trips to the nearby Countdown on each Thursday and once to BP Fanshawe St.
"Aside from that, we've had no visitors, no one coming, we haven't been anywhere. We've been at home."
If the source of transmission was true, the man was pretty angry about it and had considered legal action.
He was critical of the cleaning and availability of sanitiser to residents - he had only seen one bottle in one of three lifts.
"I caught Covid suddenly. Looking at the safeguards that are supposed to be in place in apartment buildings, there's next to none. Up until Friday, I had seen one bottle of sanitiser in the entire building and that was in one of the three lifts.
"There's been no warnings, no testing procedures. I do understand I'm an adult and looking after myself and get tested if concerned, and I did. But I didn't leave Volt Apartments. It had to have come from somewhere."
What the Ministry of Health says
A spokesperson said transmission from surfaces was "less common" and Covid was mainly transmitted by airborne droplets.
"There is recognition that aerosolised particles, which are much smaller than droplets and can travel further, are an important mechanism for transmission. Fomite transmission through direct contact with surfaces is less common."
Questioned around the country's two other biggest Covid events, the spokesperson said the final source hypothesis "regarding the likely exposure of infections associated with the Rydges Hotel, Auckland in August 2020 was deemed to be due to a maintenance worker using the lift soon after an infectious Covid-19 case, who was unknown to be a case at the time, used the lift.
"The source hypothesis of the Americold outbreak (aka August 2020 Community Cluster) was undetermined despite thorough investigation."
Despite "rigorous" interviews with early cases of outbreaks, whole genomic sequencing, testing, as well as a thorough examination of the relevant settings for potential system weaknesses that may have led to a transmission event, "some source investigations do not identify conclusive evidence to determine a source case or infection pathway".
"This is not unusual in public health investigations."
In the vast majority of cases, transmission via aerosol droplets was considered the most likely cause, the spokesperson said.
As for cleaning communal or public spaces used by a large number of people, the Ministry said they should be regularly cleaned, however, there were currently no Covid-19 mandates or health orders requiring apartment complexes to provide sanitiser or regularly clean communal surfaces.
Contacts who entered a managed quarantine facility were currently tested on days 0/1, day 3, day 6/7 and day 12.
However, the Volt's Covid cases said they still haven't been tested despite being in there since Saturday.
What the experts say
Auckland University epidemiologist Professor Rod Jackson doubted the surface transmission theory and said it was more likely caught when the couple shared a lift with someone or were in close contact with another case.
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker agreed and said it was not uncommon for authorities being unable to find the source of infection.
He sighted the country's three largest Covid outbreaks so far - the current Delta outbreak, February and last August's outbreak at Americold.
"In individual cases, it's often extraordinarily hard to know how people get infected and we've seen it over and over again, particularly the cases that have started major outbreaks in New Zealand.
"The exact mode it got between cases requires a very fine-grained investigation."
At the moment there were virtually no documented examples of surface transmission anywhere around the world.
"I wouldn't say definitively that it's never been documented, but it's not featuring as a mode of transmission that is important.
"In this instance, how are they thinking lift buttons and what is the evidence of that?"
He said it was a good idea to get vaccinated after having suffered through Covid.
"Yes, the advice is to get vaccinated even if you've had an infection. There's some evidence that it may give you the best protection it's possible to get, if you have both - actual infection and also you get vaccinated.
"It gives a very good boosting."
People who have had Covid can still catch it again, which was why people were encouraged to get the jab after they had recovered.
'I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy'
The man says he didn't get vaccinated, not because he's anti-vaccine, but because he felt like his rights had been taken away from him.
But that was now a decision he regretted. "Absolutely."
"I'm a bit of a, and I guess it's probably a bit silly looking back on it now, but I'm a bit of a stickler for my civil rights.
"I don't like having my rights violated against and it seems unfair that people who aren't vaccinated can't go to certain places and, I don't know, I think it was probably my pride more than anything else ... and that was obviously wrong of me and I should have got vaccinated."
Asked why he initially got a test, he said he felt "absolutely dreadful".
"I didn't realise I could feel as bad as I did and still be alive. It's horrible.
"It started off with a snotty nose and just a mild cold but then it got to the point where my whole body was aching, everything was sore, I couldn't move without moaning because it hurt that bad.
"My joints were sore - my back especially."
He said there wasn't one part of his body that didn't hurt.
"It got to the point where I felt like a dog with parvovirus - I couldn't balance, I couldn't walk without leaning over to one side or falling over.
"I didn't actually know what was going on because it was more than all of the symptoms of Covid put together.
"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy."
He now hoped that by speaking out about his initial beliefs about Covid and his situation, that it might make others get vaccinated.
"If making people aware of it can get people vaccinated or can make people take safeguards to ensure that they don't get this, then great.
"I can't imagine how somebody's children or an infant would [cope]. It's ghastly, absolutely disturbing.
"[Anti-vaxxers] who think they know what they're talking about with Covid are wrong. People who tell you to get vaccinated are telling you for a reason.
"If I could go back and change my actions, I would have got vaccinated, as simple as that. I made the wrong decision.
"It's important and it's painful and absolute hell to go through that when you could have gone and got vaccinated and not been in that position."
He was still battling symptoms on Wednesday and said his cough was like someone who suffered from emphysema.
"I've still got a really phlegmy cough, blocked nose, my sense of smell and taste have gone.
"I'm still quite headachey and the cough is just horrible, it's disgusting."
What Volt Apartments says
Volt Apartments has not responded to Herald requests for comment but has previously told the Herald they "continue to do elevated cleaning in public areas".
"We have given advice to individuals living in close proximity to the problem apartment.
"The problem for us is that MoH has not formally confirmed the location of interest nor given any advice."
We see that as a big failing and a source of concern.