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It is a “race between the virus and the vaccine” as Auckland remains stuck in alert level 3 while the number of unlinked cases continues to rise.
Top epidemiologist Rod Jackson said he would not be making Christmas holiday plans unless the country got to a 95 per cent vaccination rate by early December. So far, just under 82 per cent of eligible Kiwis have had their first dose – that number is at 87 per cent in Auckland.
“I don’t think I’d been making plans to leave home [for Christmas holidays], unless the Government brings in a much wider mandate [to vaccinate workers],” Jackson said. “We need everyone vaccinated before December, and if we got 95% of the population vaccinated by December… yeah, then you can have a holiday.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday extended Auckland’s level 3 Covid restrictions for another week and delayed the start of the school term, due to start on Monday, as the region continues to battle against the Delta outbreak.
Last night it emerged that there was a new exposure event at Middlemore Hospital, requiring 21 staff to be stood down.
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A patient had returned a positive Covid-19 test result yesterday after visiting the hospital’s emergency department on Friday for a non-Covid-19 related issue where they were assessed and admitted.
The patient was asymptomatic and answered no to all Covid-19 screening questions.
The patient then developed a cough on Sunday and was tested.
Health officials said there are 40 patients have been identified as contacts as a result of the exposure event. Of these, 15 are inpatients while the remaining 25 are being followed-up by the Auckland Regional Public Health Service.
Thirty-four staff have also been identified as contacts. Of these, 21 staff have been stood down with testing plans.
Waikato, Northland eye level 2 move
The outlook is however slightly brighter for Waikato and Northland, with tentative plans to bring the regions out of level 3 – to level 2 – from 11.59pm on Thursday.
The moves come after 35 cases were announced – all in Auckland, and the number of unlinked cases in the past fortnight increased by nine to 58.
This number was down to seven when Auckland moved out of level 4 nearly three weeks ago.
The number of people in hospital also increased by four to 33 yesterday, including a child at Starship Hospital. Seven people are in ICU.
The R value, the average number of people an infected person passes the virus on to, is now between 1.2 and 1.3, meaning case numbers are expected to keep increasing.
Based on these factors, Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said there was little option but to keep Auckland’s current restrictions in place.
“It’s clear cases are trending upwards and it looks as though the shift from level 4 to level 3 has contributed to pushing the R number above 1.
“Moving to step 2 of the reopening roadmap at this stage could easily cause cases to spiral out of control.
“At current vaccination rates, this could lead to large numbers of people needing to go to hospital.”
As more people were fully vaccinated the R number should reduce, as well as reducing the risk of hospitalisation, Plank said.
“This will eventually allow easing of restrictions and the faster people get vaccinated, the sooner we’ll be in a position to do this.
“We are now in a race between the virus and the vaccine.”
Plank said the option of a strict “circuit-breaker lockdown” could still be needed if cases started to rise more steeply. He also urged stronger measures to stop inter-regional spread, including testing at the boundaries.
Immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu said the case numbers were worrying given the overall population was only about 50 per cent fully vaccinated (about 56 per cent of those eligible and aged over 12 are fully vaccinated).
“High vaccination rates of at least 90 per cent and beyond, coupled with the appropriate public health steps against Delta, will help avoid future higher alert level lockdown measures – paramount to keeping everyone safe from Covid-19.”
Te Pāti Māori called for Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland, to be put back into level 4, and level 3 for the rest of the North Island, until eligible Māori were 95 per cent vaccinated.
“Failure to do so is committing our people to death by Covid,” co-leader Rawiri Waititi said. “The reality is that the Government has failed to deliver to Māori.”
Ardern rejected that assertion, and said level 3 remained tough restrictions and was not “opening up”.
Ardern said part of the Government criteria had always been compliance when considering alert level changes – over time adhering to really strict restrictions was hard.
Ardern also signalled boosting vaccination rates was Auckland’s ticket to lessen restrictions, though she declined to put a figure on it. Currently about 87 per cent of the region’s eligible population have had at least one dose, and 62 per cent both doses.
Ardern also said any moves would have to be equity-based, with still lower rates in parts of society more poorly served by the health system.
Mandatory vaccinations were also announced on Monday for many health and education workers, as part of this drive.
While there was positive reaction to the announcement from many employers, Auckland University epidemiologist Rod Jackson said vaccination announcements were “nowhere near brave enough”.
“Look, it’s a good start but … we need to go a lot further,” he told TVNZ. “Education and health are the obvious ones, but the police are also pretty obvious. I think supermarkets, I don’t want to go into a supermarket, and I’m worried about whether they’ve vaccinated. Actually hairdressers … that’s about as close a contact you’re going to get. And so I think hairdressers should be mandatory as well.”
He said the Government should have given businesses the mandate to demand mandatory vaccinations for staff. “I think the biggest gap by far was not giving businesses, the mandate to introduce ‘no job, no job, no entry’ policies without being scared of being prosecuted.”
He said a 90 per cent vaccination rate was not good enough. “That leaves over 400,000 New Zealanders, who are eligible, unvaccinated. And the scariest thing is that 10 per cent of people are probably our highest-risk population. We’ve seen it overseas in the UK, 10 per cent of people were responsible for passing on 80 per cent of the infections.”
Northland is set to move to level 2 from Friday, and a female travelling companion of a Covid-positive woman who visited the region was finally located in west Auckland last night. They have been taken into MIQ.
“They are refusing to co-operate, it is beyond irresponsible, it is dangerous,” Ardern said earlier.
On Waikato, Ardern said a potential move to level 2 was based on a boost in vaccination rates and no unlinked cases.
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