By BRITT CLENNETT, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — President Donald Trump turned attention to New Zealand’s recent spike of coronavirus cases: “Big surge in New Zealand. It’s terrible. You know, we don’t want that.”
Trump made the remarks while speaking in Minnesota on Monday, as the United States recorded nearly 42,000 new cases of COVID-19. New Zealand recorded nine new cases that day.
Responding to the president’s comments, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that making a comparison between the situations in the two countries is “patently wrong,” even as the island nation faces a new test.
Since the start of the crisis, Ardern’s strategy has been to “go hard and go early.” The small nation of nearly 5 million went into a strict, country-wide lockdown for seven weeks in March, before it had recorded any deaths.
The decisive action paid off. Twenty-two people have died from COVID-19 in New Zealand. The United States’ 170,000 death toll is the highest in the world.
In contrast to the vast spread of the virus seen in the United States and elsewhere, New Zealand was able to successfully slow down the pace of transmission, before eliminating the virus in June. It went 102 days without recording any new community infections.
New Zealand’s winning streak came to an abrupt end earlier this month, when a number of new infections were identified in Auckland. The country’s biggest city was ordered to go back into lockdown last Wednesday.
New Zealand reported 13 new cases on Tuesday, taking the total number of active cases to 90.
Dr. Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, told ABC News the origins of the new outbreak “are still a bit of a mystery.”
“The wide testing being done shows the virus hasn’t secretly been hanging around in New Zealand for the last few months. With people and goods still arriving into New Zealand from overseas, there will always be the possibility of us seeing clusters of cases.”
So far, most of New Zealand’s new outbreak is limited to a cluster of linked cases in Auckland. However, one person who became infected on Tuesday works at a quarantine hotel, where a guest who arrived from the U.S in late July tested positive. Genome sequencing has shown that the guest and hotel worker carried the same strain of the virus.
Health authorities on Tuesday ruled out the possibility that the virus entered through a freight storage facility, where one of the people who became infected had worked.
Officials are still investigating whether the virus came through its border controls. The government was criticized for lapses in testing at ports and borders, and Ardern admitted earlier testing was “not as comprehensive as it should have been.” There is now mandatory weekly testing for border and immigration staff.
As this new outbreak emerged, Ardern wasted no time in placing the 1.5 million people in Auckland into stage three of a four-tier alert system. It means all public places must be closed and residents must work or school from home where possible. Social distancing measures have been ramped up in other parts of the country.
On Monday, Ardern postponed the country’s general election by a month to Oct. 17 after opposition politicians complained that their campaigning would be hampered under lockdown conditions. They argued that the vote would weigh in Ardern’s favor, as her handling of the outbreak has boosted her popularity.
Often referring to New Zealand as “a team of five million,” Ardern has been lauded at home and overseas for mobilizing the nation during the crisis. However, for a country that relies on tourism and has shut its borders to outsiders, there’s a chance the economic fallout may negatively impact the leader in the longer term.
But Wiles believes the current outbreak can be brought under control within a few weeks, as long as the government sticks to its plan: “It’s obviously frustrating to have to go back into restrictions, but the alternative is letting the virus get out of control”.
The microbiologist added that approaching an outbreak “softly” doesn’t work. When asked about the United States’ strategy, she said, “The only way to describe it is mishandling. I’m shocked at just how bad the federal response has been and continues to be to the pandemic.”
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