New Zealand has kept its community spread of the coronavirus low by keeping tight border controls, but on Sunday the country of 5 million reported its first suspected community case since November. And officials say it might involve a more transmissible variant of the virus.
A 56-year-old woman, who had traveled to Spain and the Netherlands for work late last year, has tested positive for the coronavirus after being in managed isolation for the required 14 days upon her return to New Zealand, the country's Ministry of Health said.
She had tested negative twice — on Jan. 2 and Jan. 10 — but began developing symptoms on Jan. 15. Because she tested positive several days after leaving managed isolation, officials suspect her case is a community case.
"Further testing is needed, including a serology blood test, to confirm whether the case is new or historical," the ministry said. But it said the initial test results suggest "that it is new and we are treating it as such."
Health officials are investigating "to see if there's a match to other cases in the managed isolation facility" or whether the woman has one of the more transmissible variants that have cropped up around the world, the ministry said. It said that while she was in the Netherlands, the woman "was in contact with family members, who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19."
"We are working under the assumptions that this is a positive case and that it is a more transmissible variant, either the one identified first in South Africa or the U.K., or potentially Brazil — or another transmissible variant," Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand's director-general of health, said at a news conference, according to Reuters.
The woman had been at about 30 locations in the Northland region of New Zealand's North Island since she left isolation. She lives with one other person, who has not shown symptoms. That person has been tested and is also isolating while awaiting results. A few of the woman's other close contacts are also being tested and are required to isolate for 14 days.
Health officials praised the woman's vigilance in using a COVID-19 tracing app to record her movements.
New Zealand has reported 1,927 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths. There are 79 active cases in the country. Most of the country's residents are not expected to be vaccinated for COVID-19 until the second half of the year.
The remote island nation's ability to keep the coronavirus in check through strict lockdowns has lifted spirits around the world. But every few months a few new cases crop up.
"This is a reminder to all of us that the pandemic continues and that this is a tricky virus," Bloomfield said.