How New Zealand eliminated the coronavirus for over 100 days, only for the virus to return

How New Zealand eliminated the coronavirus for over 100 days, only for the virus to return
Holidaymakers drive past a road sign at St. Arnaud on the South Island of News Zealand, March 27, 2016.REUTERS/Henning Gloystein
  • New Zealand had reported zero new coronavirus cases and discharged its last hospital patient in May. But in early August, a new outbreak began.
  • Experts believe the new outbreak, which has grown to at least 30 new cases, may be connected to frozen food imports, although the virus spreading from packages is believed to be extremely rare.
  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the nation will address new cases the same way it successfully tackled previous outbreaks — testing, tracing, and lockdowns.
  • New Zealand's other advantages in fighting the spread of the virus include public trust, clear communication from leaders, and a sparse island population.

The day the US mourned reaching a tragic milestone — 100,000 novel coronavirus deaths — people on the other side of the world in New Zealand celebrated a much more hopeful one: No new coronavirus cases over the prior five days.

Uniquely, the country remained coronavirus-free for over 100 days.

In mid-August, however, that changed. The country reported its first new case, which quickly rose to 30. Experts believe it may be connected to imported frozen food packages, Business Insider previously reported. The risk of catching COVID-19 from packages is still thought to be low, according to available evidence.

It comes almost three months after the country celebrated discharging its last hospitalized coronavirus patient.

By then, at the end of May, there were only 21 active cases throughout New Zealand, there had been a total of 1,500 cases and 21 deaths — a far cry from the 1.74 million cases and 100,000 deaths in the US at the time.


This week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a press conference that the country has shown it is possible to swiftly control the virus, using the same precautions to address this new outbreak, including a renewed lockdown.

Part of the country's success was natural. New Zealand is a much smaller country, with a population of 4.8 million to the US's 328.2 million, and more sparsely populated too — 46 people per square mile compared to 94 people per square mile in the US.

But experts say it was more than luck that got them to zero. Early lockdown efforts, citizen's adherence to the rules, widespread testing and contact tracing, and good communication were the keys to the country's previous success dealing with the virus.

New Zealand issued national lockdown efforts early

Beginning February 3, New Zealand began imposing restrictions on travel — even though it had no known cases, Insider's Rosie Perper previously reported.

It recorded its first case February 28 and less than a month later had 102 confirmed cases. At that point, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the country's alert to Level 3 restrictions, which closed schools, canceled mass gatherings, and allowed people to speak to their doctors online.


Two days later, the country progressed to Level 4 restrictions, issuing stay-at-home orders country-wide and severely limiting travel.

"At least for New Zealand, it was relatively prompt action at an early stage to go for a strong lockdown," Nick Wilson, a professor and public health expert at the University of Otago in New Zealand, told Perper.

In response to the new outbreak, the country has reintroduced a lockdown in its largest city, Auckland, according to the official government website, and reinstituted Level 2 precautions throughout the rest of New Zealand.

How New Zealand eliminated the coronavirus for over 100 days, only for the virus to return
A nurse speaks to a member of the public at a drive through Covid 19 testing station in Morningside on April 8 in Auckland, New Zealand.Fiona Goodall/Getty

Citizens largely obeyed stay-at-home guidelines

New Zealanders followed those restrictions in earnest, and there's data to prove it.

"The Google data shows that New Zealanders have followed the lockdown rules ... with a remarkably high level of behavior change," Wilson wrote in an April 12 blog post. "Activity dropped almost instantly, by over 90% from baseline levels in some categories," he added.


That led to a leveling off of cases just 10 days after lockdown measures were put in place, he said.

The country instituted widespread testing and contact tracing

According to CBS, New Zealand conducted a total of 267,435 coronavirus tests, and on May 20, it released the NZ Covid Tracer app.

While released later than other countries like Singapore, the app will help to ensure the country doesn't experience a surge in cases as it begins to ease lockdowns. According to the American Enterprise Institute it works by allowing users to scan a QR code at entry points at various venues.

If later, they test positive for the COVID-19, contact tracers can review where the person has been and decide whether to follow up with the venues to alert them of their potential risk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls contact tracing "part of a multipronged approach" to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.


Testing and tracing, taken together, "are the backbone of public-health work," Insider's Hilary Brueck reported.

How New Zealand eliminated the coronavirus for over 100 days, only for the virus to return
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 2019.REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo

The Prime Minister communicated well and is trusted by the public

According to Wilson, "New Zealand shows the benefit of having quite high levels of scientific expert input into the policymaking process and a Prime Minister who is a very good communicator who the public trust." Arden was also praised for taking a 20% pay cut, along with other top government officials.

In the US, by contrast, the messaging has been inconsistent, with President Trump first saying the outbreak "may get a little bigger; it may not get bigger at all," while health officials said it was inevitable that the coronavirus would spread inside the US.

Social media has also "spread erroneous rumors" about fatality rates, Rosemary Taylor, an associate professor of sociology and community health at Tufts University, previously told Insider. News media has delivered conflicting messages.

But in order for people to take threats seriously, she said, they need "government transparency, a robust belief in scientific data, and a faith in international cooperation — to all of which President Trump has expressed antagonism in the past."


"Here in New Zealand, we are all very aware of how lucky we are, and we connect with colleagues overseas and really feel for them," Auckland City Hospital intensive-care specialist Chris Poynter previously told Business Insider.