Prepping for a pandemic: plans afoot at Waikato schools, councils, rest homes

If Covid-19 coronavirus makes it to the Waikato, schools will shut, councils will run skeleton services, and patients will likely get their treatment at a regional centre.

New Zealand’s first case was confirmed on Friday night – a person in their 60s who had returned from Iran via Bali.

Even before then, Waikato organisations were preparing for the inevitable arrival of the virus.

The virus’s rapid spread beyond China has governments worried. Saudi Arabia has banned foreign pilgrims, Japan is closing schools, and Australia is set to declare a pandemic.

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A person with New Zealand's first confirmed case of Covid-19 is being treated at Auckland Hospital.

Abigail Dougherty

A person with New Zealand’s first confirmed case of Covid-19 is being treated at Auckland Hospital.

Globally, about 83,700 people have been infected, almost 4700 of them outside of China, and there have been around 2860 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.

The Waikato DHB area had no-one in self isolation last week, though 27 people were the week before that.

Schools will shut if infection rates reach a certain level, Waikato Principals’ Association president Hamish Fenemor said, but health authorities will make the call.

Speaking before New Zealand’s first case was confirmed, Fenemor said Waikato schools hadn’t fielded many coronavirus queries.

That was probably because people felt it was “at arm’s length”, he said.

Kiwi principals would be pulling out pre-existing pandemic plans for another look, said Fenemor, who is principal at Cambridge East School.

And they’ll tell their communities if there’s a local case but must wait until it’s confirmed – which is hard when tests may take a day or two to come back.

Schools will shut if infection rates reach a certain level, Waikato Principals' Association president Hamish Fenemor said, but health authorities will make the call (FILE).

Mike Bain

Schools will shut if infection rates reach a certain level, Waikato Principals’ Association president Hamish Fenemor said, but health authorities will make the call (FILE).

New Zealand’s border controls – which previously only covered people coming from mainland China – have now been extended to travellers from Iran.

Those who have developed symptoms after visiting Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Singapore and Thailand should first seek medical advice by phone, the Ministry of Health said.

If a big outbreak comes, regional centres are likely to be set up for patients, Pinnacle Midlands Health Network said.

Pinnacle works in primary health across areas including Waikato, Rotorua, and Taupō-Tūrangi, and has set up a coronavirus team which meets twice weekly. 

Practices on the front line of healthcare have been told how much protective gear – including gloves and eye protection – should be in stock.

And they need a separate room to see any patients suspected of having coronavirus, with a phone and ideally a private bathroom.

Hamilton City Council has plans for a situation in which several hundred of its 1200 staffers are unable to work.

Hamilton City Council has plans for a situation in which several hundred of its 1200 staffers are unable to work.

CHRISTEL YARDLEY/STUFF

Hamilton City Council has plans for a situation in which several hundred of its 1200 staffers are unable to work.

“We have identified our critical services to keep Hamilton operating as a community and that’s really a focus on supply of water and treatment of water,” health and safety assurance lead, Mark Wagstaffe, said.

Council has about 1200 people employed across 20 sites.

Plans for an outbreak took into account that 30-40 per cent of staff might not be available to work, Wagstaffe said.

Council had spent about three weeks planning, and had met with Waikato Local Authority Shares Services and the business community, as well as working with Waikato Regional Council and Waikato Univeristy.

Practising good hygiene is the primary defence against a virus, he said.

Council is in a monitoring phase and has set up a dedicated, internal online information page, to keep staff up-to-date on any developments of the coronavirus in New Zealand.​

As for Kiwi businesses, the best thing is accurate information, Waikato Chambers of Commerce executive director Don Good said.

​”The fact that DHBs and other are now coming to the party with good medical information makes the life of our businesses a lot better, because they can make decisions with good factual information as opposed to any panic-setting information.”

Rest homes are also prepping, but dealing with viral outbreaks is nothing new, NZ Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace said.

“They’re probably arguably better prepared than anybody, because we have outbreaks of norovirus, for example.”

It’s inevitable that people in rest homes will be affected by coronavirus, Wallace said, as so far it has tended to affect older people and those with pre-existing conditions.

Contracts require aged care providers to have a “Major Incident and Health Emergency Plan”, and Waikato DHB has been checking all local providers are up to date.

At Age Concern Hamilton, staffers are regularly asking people they interact about any overseas travel and monitoring Ministry of Health updates, executive officer Brent Nielsen said.

The National Party has grave concerns about aspects of the response, Hamilton West MP Tim Macindoe said, speaking earlier in the week.

That included the fact screening at airports should cover people from all affected countries, not just China.

New Zealand’s first coronavirus patient was unwell on the flight but wasn’t subject to health checks at the airport, a fact which has been criticised.

Macindoe also said being in isolation was also a challenge for people sharing a flat or in a homestay.

“We’ve heard some cases of people self-isolating by living in cars to try to protect those who they’re living with.”

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