New Zealand has eliminated COVID-19. Here’s how they’re keeping it that way.

Epidemiologists are starting to predict when various aspects of life will get back to normal.
a playground with tape around it that reads "danger, do not enter"
Park equipment closed down in New Zealand to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Unsplash

States around the country—and countries around the world—are working on reopening social and economic activity while still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. But that doesn’t mean we’re ready to revert back to life as usual. Epidemiologists are still unsure of when the world will return to normal. Here are some key pieces of COVID-19 news you may have missed this week.

New Zealand has no active cases of the novel coronavirus

The last confirmed COVID-19 patient in New Zealand left the hospital 12 days ago. Since then, the country has kept a watchful eye to see if any new cases would pop up. With much relief, on Monday, health officials announced that, for now, the novel coronavirus has been eliminated in New Zealand.

After extremely strict lockdown measures went into place in mid-March, which many credit for the country’s successful reduction in cases, New Zealand began to reopen in carefully-planned phases. The last phase, “business as usual,” was scheduled to start on June 22. But given the lack of cases over the past two weeks, the final reopening phase has started early.

New Zealand joins a handful of countries, including Iceland, that were able to successfully eliminate the virus. But the future is still uncertain. New Zealand’s final phase of reopening still includes strict health measures, including severe travel restrictions. Only New Zealand residents can enter the country, and Kiwis reentering from travel abroad will have to quarantine themselves for two weeks.

Epidemiologists predict life won’t be back to normal for a long time

Unfortunately, getting back to normal will never be as simple as flipping a switch. The New York Times asked 511 epidemiologists about when they predicted it would be safe to return to everyday activities like getting a haircut, traveling by plane, working in a shared office space, and dating. The answers varied widely based on activity and even between different experts, highlighting how little we understand the virus and how little we know about how it will play out.

Some scenarios are particularly hard to speculate on. For example, about 20 percent of the epidemiologists predict that it will be safe to ride public transportation, like the subway or a city bus, by this summer. Some 40 percent of them predict that won’t happen until three to 12 months from now, and another 39 percent say it could take more than a year. This uncertainty makes sense, since the safety of a bus or subway car will vary widely depending on how well a particular city is managing testing and isolating people with COVID-19, how well the vehicles are being sanitized, how crowded public transportation becomes, and how easily people who frequently use public transportation are able to access healthcare.

But epidemiologists agreed more on questions like when we’ll be able to bring in our mail without taking precautions (64 percent said this summer), when we’ll be able to eat at dine-in restaurants (56 percent said not for another three to 12 months), and when we will be able to stop routinely wearing a face covering (52 percent said a year or more).

You can read the full list here.

Coronavirus cases in California likely came from several sources

In a paper published today in the journal Science, researchers sequenced novel coronavirus strains from 36 patients in northern California and found more viral lineages than they anticipated. Viral lineages reveal where a virus originated by tracing small mutations that differentiate it from other sources. It appears that in this region of California, patients carried COVID-19 that came from New York, Europe, China, and Washington.

The authors note that no single virus lineage was predominant in northern California, suggesting that local transmission of the contagion was limited. Rather, the virus was spread more robustly via travel to and from the area. This highlights the importance of strict lockdown and social distancing to keep COVID-19 from hopping from one city to another.

In a press release, the authors note that “robust insights into COVID-19 transmission are achievable if virus genomic diversity is combined and jointly interpreted with detailed epidemiological case data.”

How to hug during the COVID-19 pandemic

Hugging is good for the soul. Research shows that physical touch calms our sympathetic nervous system, which regulates the amount of stress hormones our bodies produce. But hugging has, for the most part, been put on hold since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an article in The New York Times, the risk of transmitting the virus via hugging is pretty low—but only if you follow certain precautions.

Researchers who study viral transmission say that the safest way to hug is to turn your in opposite directions, while of course both wearing masks. This prevents the two huggers from breathing directly on each other. Of course, research indicates that the disease spreads most easily when people are talking and breathing in a shared indoor space—so any hugging you do should occur in small, outdoor gatherings where participants otherwise stay several feet away from one another. Chatting in close proximity is still not worth the risk.

But after the past couple of months, we all could use a hug. So, as long as you’re being careful and working hard to limit your risk of catching and transmitting COVID-19, a quick squeeze might not be a bad idea.