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Study unpacks the New Zealand experience of COVID-19 during the first wave

14 October 2020


The international profile of New Zealand’s COVID-19 pandemic response has been raised once more by an ESR-led study published in The Lancet Public Health.

In the study, the researchers unpacked and analysed how New Zealand’s science-informed public health measures managed the first wave of COVID-19. It details how the speed and intensity of New Zealand’s response during this wave resulted in a much lower impact on the country and the initial elimination of COVID-19. It found that New Zealand’s response was notable for its strict border closures, rapid implementation of national lockdown, and rapid enhancement of surveillance activities.

Lead author, ESR Public Health Physician, Dr Sarah Jefferies, says New Zealand experienced among the lowest numbers of cases and deaths from COVID-19 reported internationally during the first wave.

“There was a marked reduction in the spread of disease in the first two weeks of lockdown, and with large improvements in testing capacity, targeting of testing in high risk and vulnerable people, and improving case and contact management, contacts were increasingly traced and cases rapidly detected. Integral to this was the collective efforts of a lot of people, inside and outside the health sector, including every New Zealander who played their role in protecting themselves and their communities.”

Dr Jefferies says the details of the New Zealand experience are of great international interest.

“In this study, we describe the New Zealand experience to provide valuable insights to the international community to inform future actions. We currently face a global challenge where we do not yet have a vaccine against this novel virus and only a few experimental treatments potentially showing promise. So, we need to understand how to optimise the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as the measures applied during different Alert Levels, to inform future responses in New Zealand and around the world.

“Early evidence in Asia suggested that control measures, such as movement restrictions, physical distancing, hygiene practices, and intensive case and contact detection and management were effective in controlling this pandemic disease. However, it was unclear how well this could be implemented in societies with little experience of successfully containing a novel respiratory virus. New Zealand followed WHO advice and combined emerging scientific evidence with leadership and communication strategies. Rapid control of community transmission through mandatory physical distancing provided time to enhance the response, including prioritised testing of higher-risk groups to ensure that COVID-19 did not overburden health system capacity.”

Dr Jefferies says the response helped limit the spread of the disease into groups of people more vulnerable to severe illness, reflected in the study. However, the study supports the ongoing need to achieving equitable health outcomes for minority and higher-risk groups. It also has particular relevance for other island nations, Western settings and countries with ethnic and social health inequities. While New Zealand has reduced the potential direct impacts of this serious global threat, Dr Jefferies notes we do not yet have a complete picture of the impacts of the response and ongoing challenges, and this will be informed by ongoing research.

About the study and authors

COVID-19 in New Zealand and the impact of the national response: a descriptive epidemiological study, was funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Strategic Scientific Investment Fund, and Ministry of Health, New Zealand.

The study was highly collaborative and included national infectious disease epidemiology and public health expertise from ESR, Massey and Otago Universities, Epi-interactive and the Ministry of Health, public health practitioners, scientists and researchers.

Study authors include Professor Nigel French from Massey University; Associate Professor Patricia Priest from Otago University and Dr Virginia Hope from ESR (members of the national COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group); Dr Caroline McElnay, Director of Public Health at the Ministry of Health; Dr Petra Muellner, Director of Epi-Interactive; and Drs Sarah Jefferies and Jill Sherwood, Public Health Physicians from ESR, who provide public health communicable disease surveillance advice to the Ministry of Health. In addition to named authors, there have been many contributors with key roles in collecting the surveillance data which informs not only this study but the New Zealand response, including disease notifiers, the New Zealand Microbiology Network who spearheaded New Zealand’s laboratory response, and the staff of Public Health Units, the Ministry of Health and ESR, that monitor and investigate cases and clusters of disease.