A year ago the global pandemic caught up with New Zealand and new words such as lockdown and alert levels were added to the lexicon.
Reporter Simon Henderson takes us behind the scenes as the reality of Covid-19 caught up with Central Otago.
It was the day the nation fell silent.
At 1.30pm on March 23 last year the Prime Minister announced the country was moving to Covid-19 Alert Level 3, and would move to Alert Level 4 in 48 hours.
A Breaking News bulletin on 1 News at 1.30pm reached 786,088 people.
A TVNZ spokeswoman said this was an unusually large audience for an off-peak time of day.
Viewing figures for Three’s Newshub at the same time were just as dramatic, with a total cumulative audience of 730,941, a Three spokeswoman said.
At 11.59pm on March 25 the entire nation went into self isolation in a bold move to halt the spread of Covid-19.
All schools, shops, bars, restaurants and nonessential businesses were closed.
While most waited anxiously at home with little to do, workers in organisations designated as essential services came to grips with a raft of new requirements.
From media reports from overseas, it was clear Dunstan Hospital in Clyde, like many health facilities around the country, could have been rapidly overwhelmed should people succumb to the illness and fall seriously ill with respiratory complications.
Central Otago Health Services chief executive Kathryn de Lac said there was potential for a large Covid-19 outbreak in the Central Otago community due to significant numbers of people being exposed to the disease at the World Hereford Conference that took place in Queenstown on March 9 to 13.
Many of those patrons also attended the Wanaka A&P Show on March 14.
An Emergency Operations Committee (AC) consisting of senior management team members, an infection prevention control officer and the clinical technical advisory group was formed, Ms de Lac said.
Alert level plans had already been formulated for each department, so when Alert Level 4 was declared, a team was mobilised to implement the plans.
All patients who presented to Dunstan Hospital with Covid-type symptoms were isolated until test results were confirmed.
The ward was divided into areas and patients were streamed — red was isolation, presumed Covidpositive, amber was awaiting a Covid test result and green was not infected.
The Chemotherapy Department was shifted to a more isolated part of the hospital so patients could drive directly up to the unit and use a separate entrance.
The Outpatient Department was set up as a ‘‘clean ward’’ and made ready to take any overflow patients.
The Emergency Operations Committee met daily to receive updates and make adjustments. There was regular communication between primary care, SDHB, St John, Aged Residential Care facilities and other rural hospitals.
Ms de Lac said the health and welfare of all staff was a high priority throughout and staff communication was prioritised.
Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan said he listened to the Prime Minister’s announcement from the emergency operations centre.
‘‘For me, the overwhelming memory was the anxiety in the community.’’
The situation was changing quickly.
‘‘We had to think of all the implications for the community.’’
He was concerned for vulnerable members of the community.
‘‘It was just that incredible fear of the unknown.’’
The region was not immune, Mr Cadogan said.
‘‘I am forever grateful to those people and their whanau who were victims of the illness in Central Otago for the way they and their whanau behaved and made sure they isolated.’’
Just before lockdown, the Southern District Health Board had indicated there would not be enough morgue space for the bodies that were anticipated.
‘‘And that to me was more frightening than the actual lockdown.’’
The Otago Civil Defence Emergency Management group began planning for every eventuality, including using cold storage facilities at orchards to house bodies if mortuaries became overrun.
Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult said a call from Southern District Health Board chief executive Chris Fleming the week before lockdown informing him of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the district ‘‘was something of a shock’’ and he knew things were about to change.
When the Prime Minister announced the move to Alert Level 4, Mr Boult thought ‘‘This is going to change our lives forever’’.
The first week of lockdown was ‘‘a surreal period’’.
Visiting town one week after lockdown ‘‘was like a scene from one of those zombie apocalypse movies’’.
‘‘I was almost waiting for tumbleweeds to go down the street.’’
It was strange and quiet with nothing moving, almost like the town was abandoned, he said.
‘‘So I found that quite scary, to be honest.’’
In the early days of the pandemic it was unknown where outbreaks might occur, but with a high international population coming in and out of Queenstown concern was high about what effect an outbreak would have in the region.
While a major pandemic outbreak was largely avoided, it became clear as the lockdown progressed that a looming humanitarian crisis was emerging, Mr Boult said.
Up to 5500 immigrant workers were faced with no income and no support.
‘‘We were starting to hear some pretty dire stuff.’’
Over the course of the lockdown, a team of about 80 volunteers were mobilised, making about 28,000 phone calls and distributing about $3 million in assistance packages from the Civil Defence Emergency fund.
It took ‘‘quite a lot of work’’ to convince the Government that they had to support these people in some fashion, Mr Boult said.
Finally, they did ‘‘but I do recall having an animated phone discussion with one senior minister who told me to take them all to the airport and put them on a plane and send them home’’.
Mr Boult found that ‘‘less than helpful’’ because many of the people had been in the region a long time.
‘‘They’ve got married here, they have kids here, they have kids at the school, they regarded themselves as pretty much Kiwis.’’
In his view, they had supported the tourism industry for years ‘‘and we had an obligation to support them’’.
Supervalue Roxburgh co-owner Cath Toms said it was a stressful time for herself and fellow owners, husband Chris and Ian and Angela Carhill.
Phone calls and emails from their head office provided advice and information.
Operational changes included a staff member at the entrance to limit the number of people in the store, cleaning and having sanitiser available and installing perspex screens at the tills.
Staff were given the choice to work away from customer-facing roles, and some of the younger teenage staff decided not to work in the challenging environment.
Later, they gained other staff — ‘‘people who couldn’t work put their hands up and they came and helped us out’’, she said.
On the first day when lockdown was announced ‘‘all of a sudden the phone started ringing hot’’ with people wanting deliveries, Mrs Toms said.
They had to rapidly develop a delivery system, borrowing Jimmy’s Pies’ refrigerated delivery truck to help store orders.
A change in the types of products people were looking for included basic ingredients like flour and yeast, and these were some of the products temporarily out of stock, and the owners had to quickly find alternative suppliers.
Without the opportunity to get takeaways or visit restaurants ‘‘everyone was making things from scratch’’, Mrs Toms said.
The owners were grateful they could remain open but were keenly aware of their responsibility to the community.
‘‘We were glad that we could help the community out, but it was pretty stressful.’’