New Zealand investigates mysterious origin of new COVID-19 cases

(Update 1 adds information, changes headline and lede, minor edits throughout)

By Rocio Otoya

Sydney, Australia, Aug 12 (efe-epa).- New Zealand on Wednesday was testing a cool-storage facility for traces of COVID-19 following the confirmation of four mysterious cases in one South Auckland family, breaking the country’s 102-day streak free of community transmission.

The infected family members, including a minor, have no connection to overseas travel, nor any apparent link to high-risk workers such as those at borders or in quarantine facilities. The cases have baffled health authorities.

“We are working hard to put together pieces of the puzzle about how this family became infected,” said Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield in a daily press conference alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Wellington.

He also announced four new “probable” COVID-19 cases of people with symptoms linked to the family, and who are awaiting test results in isolation.

There was also one new case of COVID-19 in a quarantine center for those arriving from overseas. For more than three months, new cases have been recorded only in these centers.

Authorities were not ruling out that the virus could have been contracted by the family through frozen freight from abroad. One of those infected works for Auckland cool store company Americold, where surface testing was being carried out Wednesday.

“We do know from studies overseas that, actually, the virus can survive in some refrigerated environments for quite some time,” Bloomfield said.

This week, authorities in the Chinese port city of Yantai detected the presence of COVID-19 on the packaging of imported frozen seafood that arrived from Dalian, although its origin was not disclosed. Dalian, in northeast China, closed markets last month after registering new cases of COVID-19 and detecting the coronavirus on the packaging of frozen shrimp imported from Ecuador.

In Auckland and Rotorua, contact tracing efforts were also underway after two of the infected family last weekend visited the town 192 kilometers south of Auckland, Bloomfield said, adding that no one there has been found to be classified as a close contact.

On Wednesday, the New Zealand government, which imposed a nationwide lockdown in March when it had about 50 cases of COVID-19 among a population of nearly 5 million, again put the 1.7 million residents of Auckland into Level-3 lockdown for three days.

The rest of New Zealand was placed on Level-2 restrictions, and elderly care homes on full Level-4 restrictions, banning visitors. These restrictions are expected to be extended.

After the announcement of the cases and before lockdown came into force, Auckland residents flocked to supermarkets and COVID-19 testing centers, while police set up roadblocks around the city.

Ardern reported Wednesday that the dissolution of parliament will be postponed until Monday, ahead of the general election on Sep. 9, the date of which for now has not been changed.

Her rival, the recently elected National Party leader Judith Collins, called for the elections to be postponed until November or even next year.

“It is simply unsuitable to expect there to be a fair and just election at a time when the opposition parties and other parties in government are not free to campaign,” argued the center-right leader.

Boosted by the success of her management of COVID-19, center-left Labour Party leader Ardern, who has governed since 2017 in coalition with the Green Party and New Zealand First, is polling as favorite and even has the possibility of the party governing a second term alone.

Her government, praised worldwide for suppressing the new coronavirus, declared that it had eliminated community transmission in late April, and on June 9, with no more active cases, lifted all restrictions except border closures.

Since the beginning of the epidemic, New Zealand has recorded 1,225 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, including 22 deaths, and currently has 22 active cases. EFE-EPA

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