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Protecting Our Borders From COVID-19

With a small number of cases of COVID-19 now confirmed in New Zealand, many people are feeling understandably anxious. We knew that COVID-19 was likely to arrive in New Zealand at some stage, and local District Health Boards, public health services and GP practices have been preparing for its arrival.

What are we doing at our borders?

“Coronaviruses arrive with people and so border health focuses on putting appropriate measures in at the airports and seaports,” says Dr Phil Shoemack, Medical Officer of Health for Toi Te Ora Public Health, “As there are no international airports in the Bay of Plenty and Lakes regions, border health for this region is focused on the Port of Tauranga.”

“Maritime quarantine procedures are well established in Tauranga, and every ship which arrives at the Port is required to go through these procedures,” says Dr Shoemack. All vessels, including cargo, container, fishing, and cruise ships, which arrive in New Zealand from an overseas port must follow processes under the Health Act 1956 and the Health (Quarantine) Regulations 1983. “This process is known as requesting pratique, which essentially means a license to interact with New Zealand,” says Dr Shoemack.

As part of this process, ship masters must advise the health authority at the local port of the health status on board and declare any deaths or illness. If there is no illness, then the vessel can arrive in New Zealand. An update on this status is provided again as the ship comes into berth. If there are symptoms or conditions of concern, health authorities can refuse permission to berth and can prevent people from coming off the ship. “If people are coming off a ship into a New Zealand port, it means this assessment has been undertaken and no threat to the health of the public has been detected,” says Dr Shoemack.

In the event that a vessel does not receive pratique, or pratique is granted while there is a disease on board, health authorities will work with other agencies and provide advice on how to interact safely with the ship.

“In the event that a vessel did arrive with crew members or passengers showing symptoms of COVID-19, health authorities would work with the Port to implement their Public Health Emergency Contingency Plan,” says Dr Shoemack. This plan covers scenarios including temporarily berthing a vessel to allow medical assessment, and resupplying vessels required to stay out at sea due to concerns.

When personal or private vessels arrive in New Zealand they are also inspected as part of usual border health procedures. If inspectors become aware of illness on any vessel they are required to contact the relevant local Medical Officer of Health or a health protection officer so that threat to public health can be evaluated and appropriate actions taken.

“Almost all cruise ships have medical services on board and are very good at dealing with health related issues. Recent events have given good reassurance that these processes are working well,” says Dr Shoemack.

For more information on border health, visit the Toi Te Ora Public Health website: www.toiteora.govt.nz/border_health

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