MIQ room

My Week in a COVID Isolation Facility

I am currently in New Zealand visiting my parents, siblings, and other family I have not seen for three years. Upon arrival in the country, the NZ government requires everyone (including rugby and cricket stars) to spend a week in a managed isolation facility, i.e., a hotel. I spent my week at Chateau on the Park hotel in Christchurch. I've gotten a lot of questions about what it is like, and I had those questions myself before going, so I'm writing this to answer those questions.

Unlike what I usually try to do on this blog, it is more anecdote than data. And, you'll have to read to the end to see any agriculture.

Since April 2020, all people entering NZ by air have been required to enter managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ).  This means staying in a hotel for a specified number of days. The process has evolved over time. Initially, free rooms were allocated on a first-come first-served basis and arrivees were required to stay in MIQ for 14 days. Now, rooms are allocated by a lottery, it costs $NZ1610 ($US1100) for a single adult, and you are required to stay only 7 days.

My journey began on September 20, when I first entered the weekly MIQ lottery. That day, the government allocated a random number to about 30,000 people, and only the first 3,000 got an MIQ spot.  I drew number 17,721. I tried again on September 28 (14,583) and October 5 (17,075). It seemed hopeless. The next lottery was on October 12, right at the end of my ARE 231 class. I thought about skipping it so as not to disrupt the end of class.  But I went ahead. I ended class five minutes early, and the students waited with baited breath as I logged into the system.

They were my good luck charm. I got number 210, which enabled me to enter the reservation system. I reserved a spot beginning on December 3 and promptly bought flights that would get me to Auckland on that day. 

There are 33 MIQ facilities, including 18 in Auckland. They don't tell you which one you will be housed in.  As we deplaned in Auckland, we learned that we would be taking a one-hour flight to Christchurch for MIQ. That was a stroke of luck for me, as I needed to go to Christchurch anyway. After proceeding through immigration, customs, and checks of our pre-flight COVID test results, we waited a couple of hours in an airport lounge. They gave us a paper bag full of snacks and bottled water. Then, we boarded an Air New Zealand charter flight to Christchurch. We flew right over my parents' place.

New Zealand from the air

 

We were welcomed to Christchurch by an army officer who told us we would be staying at the Chateau on the Park.  His tone of voice implied that we were going to a nice hotel. From the plane, we were herded onto four buses and driven to the hotel. Once there, we waited on the bus for 45 minutes, presumably while people on the bus in front of us were checked in. Soldiers unloaded our bags.

Army guys unloading bags

 

At check-in, I received a thick folder containing information about the upcoming week. My bag was waiting for me and I wheeled it directly to my room. I was not allowed to leave my room until I received a negative COVID test. It was 3:25pm, more than seven hours since we landed in Auckland.

My first piece of advice. Be patient. 

Welcome to MIQ

 

Testing and Health Checks. I got my first COVID test late in the afternoon on the day I arrived (Day 0). I got additional tests on Days 3 and 5. Each time, two nurses would arrive at my door. I stood in my doorway and lowered my mask. Then, a nurse would stick a swab up my nose. They never entered my room. I got a text message the day after each test with my result (always negative). On non-test days, I got a call from a nurse with questions about my health and wellbeing.

Food. Three times a day, a door knock announced that my food had been placed in a paper bag at my door. On Day 0, I got lunch and dinner no choice of what I wanted. People with dietary restrictions were served food consistent with those restrictions.  On subsequent days, I chose my meal from a menu using an app. 

The food was really good. I guess it helps if your MIQ hotel contains a highly-rated restaurant. I think my favorites were the roast lamb and the beef curry.

Chateau restaurant

 

Room service was available and reasonably priced. I ordered frequent coffees (almost always a large flat white), which were delivered promptly for $NZ4.50 ($US3) each. Beer was available for $NZ5 per 12oz bottle and wine for $NZ18 per bottle. There was a daily limit of 6 beers or 1 bottle of wine.

It was easy to order online for deliveries from a grocery store (necessary for some Bluebird Salt and Vinegar chips, among other snacks), or from restaurants. One night, on the recommendation of my brother in law, I ordered a sandwich from Empire Chicken. It was excellent. I'm not sure exactly where it would rank on my chicken sandwich scale, but definitely near the top.

Chicken

 

Exercise. I rented a spin bike from Rutherford Fitness for $NZ100 for the week. Their contact details were provided in my welcome pack. I emailed them soon after arrival, and within an hour, a person in an army uniform showed up at my door with a bike. I used it every day. For the cycling nerds, I attached my power meter pedals so I could connect to Zwift, which I ran through my laptop.

I ordered a fan to help keep me cool while riding, but security didn't allow it through. We were not allowed any equipment in the room that blows air and could therefore spread COVID into the hallways. For the same reason, we were also instructed to close our windows before we opened the door to our room.

Bike

 

Outdoors. Once I got my first negative COVID test result on Day 1, the nurse placed a blue band on my wrist, which entitled me to go to the outdoor area during certain hours. I had to wear a mask and was not allowed to do anything that would cause heavy breathing or to bring anything larger than a phone. However, the area was quite large, and to my surprise it was open all afternoon (1-6pm) and all night (7pm-7:30am). It was nice to go out and take a walk.

My next piece of advice. Go outside every day. I didn't go out on one rainy day, and I noticed an improvement in my psyche when I went out the next day.

Outdoors

 

Apparently a local cat likes to visit the outdoor area, and I guess they were worried it would catch COVID. I didn't see the cat.

Cat

 

Visitors. We were allowed visitors for up to 15 minutes while in the outside area. You had to reserve a time as only one group could visit at a time. The visitors would be in the area by the green chairs and the MIQer in the outdoor area near the cone. It was nice to visit with my parents this way. It's not the real thing, but definitely better than zoom.

MIQ visit

 

Passing the Time. I'm trying to finish a paper on how growing corn in the US Midwest affects nitrogen concentration in nearby streams and rivers. Between that and zoom calls with students and colleagues, I had plenty of work to keep me busy. I spent most of the days working, but also spent time riding my spin bike and watching TV. The internet was free and fast.

Another piece of advice. Have a plan for something engaging to do each day. It would have been a long 7 days if all I did were watch TV.

Staff.  Every single person I interacted with was friendly, upbeat, and professional. This includes the young soldiers at security, room service taking my coffee order, the nurses checking in on me and doing my COVID tests, and the policeman who went back to my room at the end of it all to retrieve the charging cable I forgot. They all made it a pleasant experience. To every one of them, thank you.

 

At 9am on Day 7, I walked out and into my parents car. Most of my MIQ mates were shuttled back to the airport for a return flight to Auckland. My dad drove me home to the farm where I was required to self isolate for 2 more days. On Day 9, I drove to a drive-through testing center for one more test.  On Day 10, I got confirmation that I was COVID negative. I was now free to move about the country.

In sum, MIQ was not how I would choose to spend my time, but it was an utterly pleasant experience. 

Patch
Home on the farm with Patch the sheep dog

 

Some more background on New Zealand's COVID experience 

As of today, 46 people have died from COVID in NZ. That's 9 people per million in the population. The US death count is 267 times higher at 2,400 people per million population. NZ has maintained a low number of COVID cases by strictly controlling its border using MIQ, along with targeted lockdowns and rigorous contact tracing.

COVID Deaths
Source: Our World in Data

 

NZ's first confirmed COVID case was announced on February 28, 2020. By March 25, the country had 205 cases and it entered lockdown. By early June, the country was COVID free, and life returned to normal.

For most of the ensuing 435 days, a 14-month period in which the US experienced multiple large COVID waves, New Zealanders living inside the country faced no restrictions on personal movement or gatherings, and experienced few cases outside of MIQ. Then, in August 2021, the delta variant entered the community and cases spread quickly. A strict lockdown in the city of Auckland appeared initially to have quelled the outbreak, but cases never went to zero. Instead, they rose again, but have been declining since mid November.

COVID cases
Source: Our World in Data

 

The decline in cases in the last month may be due in part to a high vaccine rate. About 89% of eligible New Zealanders (i.e., those aged 12 and over) have received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which is 75% of the total population. In the US, 60% of people are fully vaccinated.

COVID Vax
Source: Our World in Data

 

Beginning on February 14, fully vaccinated NZ citizens are scheduled to be allowed to enter the country from anywhere in the world without going through managed isolation. The border is scheduled to open to all vaccinated people on April 30.  It is possible that the Omicron variant will cause a delay in this plan, but the wheels are in motion for NZ's transition from a COVID elimination policy to a policy of living with endemic COVID. 

The transition may be rough. NZ recently implemented vaccine requirements for certain workers and for customers in service venues such as restaurants and cafes. Masks are required in stores and other indoor public spaces. A small but vocal opposition could derail these policies. New variants or waning immunity from vaccines could lead to future outbreaks.

Fewer New Zealanders than usual have died in the last two years, likely due to the lack of flu coming into the country in 2020. In the US, people have been dying at a rate 20% higher than usual. Comparing NZ to the US is perhaps unfair because it is easier to control the border in a small isolated country. NZ policies may not have worked in a larger country. 

It may be too soon for a full assessment of NZ's COVID policies, but it is hard to argue with the death statistics to date. 

excess deaths
Source: Our World in Data