What is COVID-19

Information about COVID-19 including where the virus came from, how it spreads and the current variants of concern.

About COVID-19

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. It affects your lungs, airways and other organs.

Coronaviruses are from a large and diverse family of viruses that cause illnesses such as the common cold. Other recent diseases caused by coronaviruses include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

SARS-CoV-2 was first recognised in China and likely originated in animals. It is still unclear how the virus came to infect humans. The disease spread to other countries, with the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring a pandemic on 11 March 2020.

The virus has since undergone genetic mutations over time as it adapts to humans. Some of these mutations, such as the Delta variant, can spread more easily than the original virus and cause more severe disease.

Variants of COVID-19

It is a natural process for viruses to change or mutate, which may produce variants. Variants are developing around the world. This tends to happen in places where the virus is out of control.

WHO is tracking variants of concern and variants of interest.

Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants | WHO website (external link)

Variants of COVID-19 may affect how fast the virus spreads, or how sick people get from the virus.

The current variants of concern are:

  • Alpha – first found in the United Kingdom
  • Beta – first found in South Africa
  • Gamma – first found in Brazil
  • Delta – first found in India.

The Ministry of Health is providing updates on these variants.

COVID-19: About the Delta variant (external link)

COVID-19: Science news | health.govt.nz (external link)

How COVID-19 spreads

COVID-19 is usually spread from person to person. When an infected person breathes, speaks, coughs, sneezes or sings, they may spread particles containing the virus.

These particles range in size. Larger and heavier particles — droplets — quickly fall to the ground or other surfaces within seconds or minutes. Smaller particles — aerosols — can remain airborne for minutes to hours. Spread of the virus by aerosols appears to be more important than previously thought.

The risk of airborne transmission becomes higher:

  • in enclosed spaces that do not have good airflow
  • in crowded places with many people nearby
  • in close-contact settings, such as close-range conversations, singing, or shouting.

The risk is lower outside, with fewer people, and if people are widely spread.

What is COVID-19

How to protect yourself and others

These simple steps can slow the spread of the virus and help protect you, your whānau, and your community from COVID-19. 

  • If you have cold, flu or COVID-19 symptoms, stay home and call your doctor or Healthline for free on 0800 358 5453.
  • Regularly wash and thoroughly dry your hands.
  • Sneeze and cough into your elbow.
  • Keep a 2 metre distance from people you do not know.
  • Clean or disinfect shared surfaces often.
  • Wear a face covering.
  • Keep track of where you have been with the NZ COVID Tracer app.

COVID-19 symptoms

The symptoms of COVID-19 are like common illnesses such as the cold or flu. Some people will only experience mild to moderate symptoms. Older people, ethnic minorities, and those with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk of severe illness from the virus.

Some people who have had the virus are suffering health impacts longer than a few weeks or months. This is commonly referred to as Long COVID.

Symptoms of COVID-19 and Long COVID

People at higher risk of COVID-19

COVID-19 treatments

Even though we have had relatively few cases, New Zealand is up-to-date in our knowledge and use of appropriate treatments. We have good processes to assess emerging and new treatments, and a fast and proven approval process when we decide on what to use.

COVID-19 infections cause two major issues.

  1. A viral attack on the body and the harm that causes.
  2. In some cases the virus also triggers an immune reaction which can also cause harm.

Studies for new treatments now cover both these issues and concentrate on three areas.

  • Antiviral drugs limiting the ability of the virus to thrive in the body.
  • Medicines that calm the immune system over-reaction prompted in some patients.
  • Antibody treatments that help the body fight the virus. 

The Ministry of Health has updates on pharmaceutical treatments for COVID-19.

COVID-19 Science Updates | health.govt.nz (external link)

Our response to COVID-19

Aotearoa New Zealand’s strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is a sustained approach to keep it out, find it, and stamp it out.

We do this through:

  • controlling entry at the border with managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) for 14 days
  • disease surveillance, for example testing anyone with symptoms
  • physical distancing and hygiene measures
  • testing for and tracing all potential cases
  • isolating cases and their contacts
  • broader public health controls depending on the Alert Level we are in.

Find out more about New Zealand’s elimination strategy | health.govt.nz (external link)

New Zealand’s vaccine plan

Vaccination is the next step in protecting people from COVID-19. The Pfizer vaccine is free and available to everyone in New Zealand aged 12 and over.

COVID-19 vaccines

Wastewater testing

Wastewater testing is being used as an extra tool to help check for COVID-19 in New Zealand. It is being used as a surveillance tool alongside testing of:

  • symptomatic people in the community
  • asymptomatic testing of workers at the border and in managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

Information on wastewater testing for COVID-19 (external link)

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