The community outbreak of Covid-19 is expanding the limits of the country’s quarantine system and the number of rooms available with adequate air filtration systems that can retain the virus.
There are now more positive cases of Delta in the community than the government has rooms available with top-of-the-line ventilation systems.
A public health expert says the government has dropped the ball with the status of its quarantine facilities.
As of Wednesday, there were 687 positive Covid-19 cases in the community, most of which had been transferred to quarantine facilities in Auckland.
The joint chief of managed isolation and quarantine, Brigadier Rose King, said there were a total of 674 quarantine rooms that had air filtration units installed.
While not everyone who had been infected would have their own single room, the outbreak was reaching a point where the number of suitable rooms was expanding.
Professor Nick Wilson, a public health expert at the University of Otago, said that figure was not good enough at this point in the pandemic.
“That amount of filters seems too low from what I know of these hotels.”
Professor Wilson has long-standing concerns about the reuse of hotels in quarantine facilities, saying that more filtration systems should have been installed.
Covid 19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the government’s current quarantine options should be completed within the next 24 hours or so.
But another hotel joins the quarantine queue.
“We have an additional facility that is being installed right now that will bring in several hundred additional rooms, that is the Holiday Inn next to the [Auckland] Airport, “Hipkins said.
“It has been converted for use for quarantine purposes. That will bring in several hundred more rooms.
“We will need the additional facility to go live in the next 24 to 36 hours to ensure that we can accommodate additional cases tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and so on.”
Not part of the original plan
Brigadier King said that the installation of air filtration units in the rooms of returnees and now quarantined in places like the Holiday Inn was not part of the original plan with the MIQ facilities.
“The priority continues to be to improve the ventilation of the shared spaces in our facilities, mainly hallways and elevators,” said King.
“But as an added layer of protection, work is underway to install air filtration units in the quarantine rooms of our facilities.”
University of Auckland aerosol chemist Dr Joel Rindelaub said that efforts to add things like HEPA filters were good news.
“HEPA filters, these high-efficiency particulate air filters, are pretty much the best we can use when we’re recirculating the air to keep it clean, so that’s a good sign to see,” Rindelaub said.
“I am also glad that they are interested in these corridors because this is the exact place where we know that aerosol transmission events have previously taken place here in New Zealand.”
Professor Nick Wilson cautioned, however, that people do not become too dependent on technology like HEPA filters to stay safe.
He said the government needed to come up with a new quarantine plan.
“Having these kinds of filters will help, but we are still in a situation where these modified hotels are not suitable for their purpose,” he said.
“Really, as a country, we need to move to what Australia is doing and build specially designed facilities that are separate single-story units like the ones they have at Howard Springs in Australia, and all with very good ventilation.