Malo Team Fono!
This week as we embark to move onto Alert Level 1, our Nius Update gives us a round-up of all the significant happenings at The Fono and around the nation over the past weeks as New Zealand built up to Alert Level 4 then on through Level 3 to Level 2.
It is a remarkable story featuring a cast of outstanding people from The Fono who carried out their work on behalf of others with enthusiasm and dedication to the highest standards of care and safety. Our clinical, public health, social services staff and those in support roles along with volunteers made a real difference in delivering to the community and families.
With some breakthrough ideas Nationally and amongst our Pacific neighbours, we have seen what entire united populations can achieve with sound leadership. I am sure we will all remember this time as one where we shared with pride our common purpose, celebrating each day as we moved towards the elimination goal, inspired by stories from around the world, across New Zealand and indeed from within The Fono.
Take a little time to look back with us.
Story One – Caring is our culture, under Covid-19
Twenty-twenty started as any other year for The Fono. Staff gradually returned from their holidays, some worked right through, others were about to take their delayed holidays. New staff were taken through their orientation and quickly settled into The Fono family. By early February normal operations resumed across all services.
All the while we were conscious of stories circulating the world of a deadly virus outbreak in China. More and more of these stories started filling the 6pm news and our social media newsfeeds during Christmas and New Year’s. We knew very little about this nameless virus – only that it is highly contagious and deadly with flu-like symptoms and originated from a wet-market in Wuhan, China. The first case was officially reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 31st.
Cases began to rapidly grow in China and started to cross borders into other parts of Asia in early January. By the 23rd of January the virus had reached the US with 581 reported cases and 17 people had died worldwide. On the very next day, the 24th of January, our Ministry of Health set up a team to monitor the situation under the watchful eyes of soon to be loved, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, Director-General of Health.
Australia recorded its first three confirmed cases a few days later.
By the end of January worldwide cases had jumped to 2,800 with 80 lives lost. Public health staff began to check all incoming passengers from China at our international airports to look for signs of the virus. It was now clear to our government that we must now prepare for the worst of a worldwide outbreak and started to plan for a complete lockdown.
On the 30th of January an Air New Zealand flight was booked by the government to evacuate Kiwis from Wuhan – the epicenter of the outbreak. On the following day, the WHO declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.”
The New Zealand Government placed entry restrictions on foreign nationals travelling here from, or transiting through, mainland China. Those who were allowed to enter the country must self-isolate for 14 days. This was set in place on the 3rd of February. The New Zealand Lockdown had begun.
On the 6th of February 193 evacuees arrived in Auckland on the charted flight from Wuhan. On the same flight were Tongan and Samoan nationals that were studying there. On arrival they were transported directly to a naval base in Whangaparaoa to be the first group to be quarantined for 14 days at a government controlled facility. Thankfully none tested positive.
The WHO finally gave this deadly virus a name on the 11th of February, Covid-19, short for ‘Coronavirus disease 2019’. By then worldwide confirmed cases had reached 43,103 and 1,018 people had died.
The Minister of Health David Clark held a press conference in Parliament to announce New Zealand’s first confirmed case of Covid-19 on the 28th of February. This was a person in their 60s who had returned to Auckland from Iran. That made New Zealand the 48th country to record a positive case of Covid-19. At the same press conference, the country was introduced to the Director-General of Health, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield and the almost daily 1pm Covid-19 updates that would become essential watching and a trusted source of information and assurance for most of the country throughout the lockdown period.
More Health officers were placed at our airports to check incoming travelers for symptoms. Covid-19 dominated the news and was the number one story across the country. This had sent panic buyers to supermarkets where they cleaned out toilet paper, hand sanitiser and tinned food.
Story 2 – Team of 5 Million
In the beginning of March, both Australia and the US reported their first Covid-19 related deaths taking the international death toll to over 3,000 and confirmed cases surpassed 100,000.
Our second positive case was recorded on the 4th of March, an Auckland woman in her 30s who had travelled to Italy. The next day our first person-to-person transmission was a man in his 40s from the household of our first case who had returned from Iran.
The severity and the alarming rate of infections across the globe at this point meant that the WHO had to declare Covid-19 an official global ‘Pandemic’ on the 11th of March.
Pasifika Festival was cancelled on the 13th of March soon after the first positive case was recorded in French Polynesia. Positive cases started to grow steadily and much to our Pasifika families’ disappointment, Polyfest was also cancelled as well as all international sports competitions. Strict border controls were strengthened to ensure all incoming travelers would self-isolate for 14 days, except those arriving from the Pacific Islands.
“Be Strong, but be kind. We will be OK,” declared our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern on the 17th of March as plans were being finalized for New Zealand’s response to the pandemic.
Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson braced the country for a severe economic down turn likely to be worse than the great depression of the 1930s. To cushion the impact on the economy the Minister announced an unprecedented $12.1 billion emergency relief package to support the Ministry of Health as they prepared for a possible mass outbreak, and to support businesses through a range of measures including a 12-week wage subsidy for effected businesses.
For the first time in history, the government closed the country’s borders to all but New Zealand citizens and permanent residents on the 19th of March.
The next day, on the 20th of March, The Fono Senior Management Team (SMT), had what was to be their last face-to-face meeting for 9 long weeks. After the opening prayer, the CEO Tevita Funaki, announced that The Fono Covid-19 Response Plan would take effect immediately. The SMT was asked to ensure all existing contract managers were to be contacted to ensure all funding would remain in place for the duration of the lockdown, and no one at The Fono would lose their job.
All at risk staff would work from home, and the rest of the staff would be redeployed to the various services that required extra support. All medical and dental supplies would be ordered including PPE and close communication was encouraged with our Pharmacists to ensure patients’ medication will be available during the lockdown.
March 21st was the day the Prime Minister introduced the country to the Covid-19 four-level Alert System and what each level would mean in terms of restrictions and guidelines. People over 70 and those with compromised immunity systems were asked to stay at home.
Story 3 – Go Hard Go fast
Dr Malia circulated an email to all staff with the ‘Call to Action’ from the Royal NZ College of General Practitioners – ‘Go Hard, Go Early’ and to reduce in-clinic consultations by 70%. All practices were to start ‘virtual first’ triage from the 23rd of March. Signs and barriers in were place at all of The Fono’s clinic entrances asking people to stay in their cars and call ahead on the new call-free number, 0800FONO4U.
Marquees were also setup at all clinic carparks ready for drive-through triage and immunisations. Medical teams of 6 were rostered to reduce the risk of infection among staff with clear instructions to wear PPE, practice social distancing and sanitise at every opportunity.
A woman in Guam was the first Covid-19 related death in the Pacific on the 22nd of March. Fiji, PNG, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Hawaii all reported confirmed cases of Covid-19, a combined total of 66 people. Nauru, Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu were still free of the virus and declared a state of emergency to ensure the virus did not enter their shores.
On Monday the 23rd of March New Zealand’s positive cases surpassed 100, most of which were kiwis returning from overseas. But signs were showing that community transmission had started. The Prime Minister announced that country was now on Alert Level 3 with 48 hours to prepare for Alert Level 4 on Thursday the 26th of March – a complete lockdown of our borders.
On the same day only two flights were allowed to depart for Samoa and Tonga, all other flights were cancelled. Those that didn’t make it out were then added to the thousands of visitors from the Pacific Islands stranded across the country living with relatives.
Story 4 – 26th of March – Day 1, Alert Level 4
That morning 283 cases were reported as the usually busy peak hour streets were empty of cars across the country, except for those deemed by the government as essential workers.
Thousands of our Pacific people found themselves with new titles and levels of respect – ‘essential workers’. We were on the road that morning to supermarkets and security firms. Some of us headed to food processing factories, some got into their trucks and courier vans. And of cause some of us woke up and put-on our scrubs, uniforms and IDs and headed to hospitals, rest homes, medical centres and social service providers – right across the country.
‘Serving all who needs us’, was the first of fifty daily messages from CEO Tevita Funaki to all staff. Each and every morning of the lockdown his messages of encouragement and support binged staff inboxes. With the support of Anthony D, The Fono god-father and Janet, The Fono gate keeper, these messages continued everyday including weekends. Tevita ended his first message with ‘Kia maia, kia manawanui, Be strong, be resilient. Kia kaha tatou ki te tiaki i a tatou ano, Let us all look after one another.’
Word from Pacific Futures Limited that the funding for the Covid-19 Pacific Relief Packages was ready to be given to The Fono. Ana, Social Services manager, got into turbo mode and rallied her team of 60 plus staff and volunteers to set up The Fono’s ‘food-bank’. A warehouse was quickly acquired at no cost, thanks to The Corbans Estate in Henderson.
By the end of the Relief programme Ana’s team had delivered 7,142 food packages to Pacific families from Pukekohe to Warkworth. “Please reach out to us if you and your family need support during these difficult times…” was Ana and her team’s constant messages to Pacific families.
It wasn’t until the 29th of March that New Zealand recorded its first Covid-19 related death, a woman in her 70s from Greymouth on the West Coast.
Just a couple of days before lockdown, community nurses Pele and Lingi had presented to the students about what Coronavirus is and how they can help their families stay safe during the lockdown.
Students were given workbooks or devices to complete their studies from home. They even built bird-boxes and plant troughs during their virtual classes. Mentors stayed in touch with each student to support them and their families. Forty families received food relief during this time, some more than once as the need was greater with some families.
On April 5th Dr Bloomfield announced that the number of confirmed cases had passed 1,000 and there were now 12 clusters where there were 10 or more infections from the same place.
By this time The Fono’s Covid-19 lead and Public Health manager, Emily was working hard with the District Health Boards to commission The Fono’s Mobile Covid Testing Clinic. Manager Nursing, Moana rallied her nurses and allocated staff to man clinic entrances and carpark triage. Practice managers Richard and Ankit rostered the clinical team to man the phones and the small number of in-clinic consultations.
Also on turbo charge was Naranjan, The Fono’s Henderson Pharmacist, he had a team of 8 preparing and packing prescriptions. Tui, Mata and Elena were recruited to help deliver 4,235 medications to our families. “Free meds, Free delivery for our families,” Naranjan said as he reported his numbers.
Story 5 – The reward for good work is more work
New Zealand’s second death was reported on Good Friday, the first of a number of Covid-19 related deaths from the Rosewood Rest Home in Christchurch. About the same time, a Tongan nurse at the same Rest Home tested positive and was self-isolating at home. Her husband and 19 year old daughter also tested positive. Thank God all three fully recovered a few weeks later after a difficult ordeal with the virus.
The global number of coronavirus cases reached two million on the 17th of April with more than 30,000 deaths. New Zealand reported a total of only 1,422 cases, 867 of which had recovered, and 11 deaths. The team of 5 million were on their game to stamp out the virus.
On the 20th of April, the Prime Minister announced that the country would reduce to Alert Level 3 on the 28th of April for two weeks.
New Zealand reduced to Alert level 3 on Day 34 of the lockdown. The CEO’s message that morning was the Tongan proverb: ‘Fai’aki e ‘ilo, ‘oua ‘e fai’aki e fanongo’, do things with certainty, not by hearsay. He stressed the importance of not acting hastily without knowing the full situation and facts as restrictions were slowly lifted.
Queues outside KFC and McDonalds started at 12.01am on Tuesday the 28th April as people rushed to break their enforced six week fast-food fasting.
“We not only flattened the curve, we smashed it,” was the celebration as numbers started to flatten out and recovered cases outnumbered new cases. The 4th of May was the first day that no new cases were recorded.
The Fono’s Comms team had by this time merged with the call center. With staff redeployed from other services the team was split into the Social Media and SMS team to respond to all Covid-19 Relief requests and the 0800 team to take all medical and dental calls. Team lead Frances, reported 1,600 calls a day on the first two weeks of Level 4 and averaged out to 500 calls a day at Level 3. The team was also responsible to publishing daily notices and updates on all services especially the Mobile Covid Testing Clinic and Flu-vax Clinic.
By the end of Level 3 our 0800FONO4U received 17,212 calls; our GPs completed 6,997 phone consultations; 743 GP face-to-face consultations; 860 Covid-19 swabs; 3,150 vaccinations were given; 815 Well-check calls were made to at risk families with elderly members and 537 calls were made to people with long term illnesses.
COO, Sally called the first face-to-face SMT meeting after 9 weeks of Zooms on Friday the 22nd of May. CEO Tevita Funaki had a hand written list of items he wanted to cover, but before that he asked Moana to open the meeting with a prayer.
Tevita started by acknowledging Fono friends and families who along with many other Pacific families had lost their loved ones during the lockdown. Having to live through the restrictions while mourning the loss of members was extremely difficult.
What bought it close to home was the passing of two Fono family members. First was OCA tutor, Salimoni Vere, after a long battle with liver cancer. The other was 14-year-old Portia Lilly De Luen, the twin daughter of Family Harm Worker, Summar earlier that week. As Tevita was talking staff were singing hymns as they practiced for the formal visit to Summar’s family later that day. “Where in the corporate world would you find a group of senior management meeting while staff sing hymns outside the boardroom. Only at The Fono, and that’s something we need to treasure as we return to the new norm.” Tevita shared.
Tevita completed his list and thanked the team for the extraordinary efforts during the lockdown. He touched on the opportunities that lie ahead and reminded the SMT again of what his mother taught him, “The reward for good work is more work.”