Covid-19: Eliminating Delta from community hard but still feasible, experts say
On Monday, 22 new community cases of the virus were announced.
Despite this number, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Auckland would move to alert level 3 from 11.59pm on Tuesday for at least two weeks, but said New Zealand was not giving up on stamping out the virus.
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Level 3 was very strict and bubbles should remain small, she said.
Experts remain concerned about Covid-19 cases – including those that remain unlinked to the current outbreak.
Ardern earlier said she believed there would come a time when daily case numbers would get to zero but admitted it was “tough” as a tail of transmission still remained despite the Government putting in place level 4 restrictions.
How the prisoner became infected with the virus remained unknown.
“It’s the imperfections in delivery that I think ultimately limit what is possible,” Baker said.
“At the moment, the modelling is telling us of course that alert level 4, which is very stringent, is doing a good job at stamping out the outbreak, but ... I think we are realising there is always leaks in the system.”
These leaks included people leaving their homes for essential activities, essential workers breaking their bubbles to continue working, and the “very problematic one” of people breaking or bending the rules.
“We know a proportion of the population are part of the ‘underground economy’. They are carrying on with activities with various degrees of legality in some cases.
“If the virus is being transmitted in those groups, it may be very hard to eliminate.”
Baker said officials had talked about being “cautiously optimistic” about an alert level change but moving Auckland to level 3 created more of a risk that the country wouldn’t achieve zero cases in the community.
“After a period of being in lockdown, people will push the boundaries in terms of their connectedness. There will be more social mixing.
“That’s the difficulty that, even with quite good intent, people will inevitably start to mix a lot more and any remaining virus in the community will start to flare up as outbreaks.”
If New Zealand didn’t work hard now to stamp out the virus, at some point, it would start following the trajectory of Victoria and NSW, Baker said.
It would also result in the country living “somewhere” between level 2 and 3 for the rest of the year – and possible into the next.
Baker said New Zealand couldn’t afford for the virus to spread widely without 90 per cent of the eligible population being double vaccinated.
He was also concerned for Māori who would be much worse affected. Not having much surplus capacity in the health system made the country “vulnerable”.
“Stamping it out is very important to do now,” he said.
Professor Nick Wilson agreed it was still possible to reach zero cases of Delta in the community but believed keeping Auckland in level 4 a bit longer would have been the best way to achieve this.
Wilson said Delta outbreaks have been completely contained in China, South Australia and Queensland, however he admitted it was hard, as shown by the outbreaks in Victoria and NSW.
“I think the chances of success will be very much higher if Auckland stays at alert level 4 for longer – and if this alert level is expanded to the north of the Waikāto where it has recently spread.”
Ministry of Health Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced a stay at home order for those living around Mangatangi where the Waikāto cases had been reported.
It was essentially a “bespoke” level 4 lockdown for the area, until Friday at the earliest, he said.
The risk of large outbreaks in the future would decline, Wilson said, especially if New Zealand achieved a 90 per cent vaccination rate.
If eliminating the current outbreak failed, the future would look a lot like Victoria and NSW, “rather grim with risks of healthcare system overload”, Wilson said.
It would also see strict restrictions continue until vaccination levels peaked.
ACT leader David Seymour argued that any move down alert levels for Auckland would mean the Government had “given up” on its elimination strategy.
“During the first lockdown, the Government kept New Zealanders in level 4 based on the four-day average of 10 cases of the less contagious strain,” Seymour said.
“If it now moved to level 3 on a four-day average of 20 cases of Delta, and persistent unlinked cases each day, then surely the elimination strategy is over?”
However, Ardern said level 3 restrictions would be effective at stamping out the virus, and said if there was one word that described level 3, it was “caution”.