Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Auckland restrictions expected to be eased, but expect case numbers to rise also

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Bar any major developments today Auckland’s slight easing of restrictions on Tuesday will likely go ahead, with case numbers still roughly within modelling and the Government balancing mounting pressure from businesses and fatigued residents.

But experts warn people should expect to see a rise in case numbers and hospitalisations as a result.

Cabinet is meeting today to finalise its decision, a week after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced an in-principle decision to move the region to step 2 of level 3 restrictions from 11.59pm on Tuesday

This step would allow retail stores to operate with safe distancing requirements and mask use, public facilities like libraries and museums to reopen, and outdoor gatherings to increase to 25 from 10.

Ardern told TVNZ today that Cabinet would today meet to confirm the in-principle decision to let Auckland move to level 3.2 from 11.59pm Tuesday.

A key consideration would be the latest data on vaccination rates, she said.

“It’s not just about case numbers now when we have a highly vaccinated environment.”

Ardern told TVNZ that further details are expected to release more details on Wednesday on whether or not primary schools will be able to open in Auckland.

When Ardern made her initial assessment on Auckland’s possible step-change, she also released the high-level modelling guiding the Government’s current decision making.

The modelling predicted the seven-day rolling average of cases to reach 143 today.

In the seven days to Sunday there were 1009 new cases, at a rate of 144 a day. The cases are trending upwards, with a record 206 on Saturday – the daily average and peak expected by the end of the month – but still within parameters.

The number of people in hospital has risen from 53 to 74, while the number in ICU has remained relatively steady, totalling five on Sunday.

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On Aucklanders being able to leave the city over the Christmas period, Ardern told TVNZthe Government was “absolutely clear” that people in Auckland will be allowed to do so.

But she said there were logistical things they were needing to get sorted ahead of that – including some kind of land boundary.

It also may include vaccine passports.

“We’re working on ways or whether or not it’s indeed possible to set up checks that don’t just lead to really, really long delays.”

Ardern said they were facing a “very large logistical challenge” that officials have not yet solved.

But she kept reiterating: “Aucklanders will be able to move.”

She said officials had not yet set a clear date for that to happen – only saying that it will be before Christmas.

Ardern said she understood what Aucklanders were going through on waiting to know whether they could leave the city for Christmas.

She said she had been speaking to family members in Auckland last night and revealed even they had tried asking her for any news.

They had asked her: “What do you think is going to happen for Christmas?”

On Māori vaccination status data being released, Ardern said the Ministry of Health is now acting as a bit of a mediator regarding the issue of releasing that data to Māori health providers.

She said some Māori health providers did not agree with the data being released, highlighting privacy issues.
Ardern acknowleged, however, that she supported information being shared to help get vaccination rates among that community up.

Auckland's possibe step-change

Vaccination levels have continued to rise, working with restrictions to slow, but not stop, what would be a devastating spread of the virus.

As of Sunday, 78 per cent of the eligible population – aged over 12 – have had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and 89 per cent have received at least one dose.

In Tāmaki Makaurau, Waitematā DHB is at 92 per cent, Auckland 95 per cent and Counties Manukau broke through the 90 per cent eligible first doses milestone on Sunday.

Respectively those three are 83, 87 and 80 per cent second doses, and are expected to pass 90 per cent in the next three weeks.

Manurewa-Papakura Ward Councillor Daniel Newman says Counties Manukau DHB’s achievement of 90 per cent first dose vaccination coverage had been helped hugely by community groups and leaders who had worked hard over the last few weeks to get locals vaccinated.

Māori and Pasifika groups in particular had stepped up during that time to set upvaccination drives and pop-up vaccination clinics around the South Auckland community, he said.

Newman told TVNZ’s Breakfast that people were no longer listening to the official Covid-19 announcements at 1pm or even those from Ardern.

Instead, they were now listening more and more to people on the ground at those vaccination drives – including doctors on the side of the road giving advice and speaking to members of the public there.

Newman praised the South Auckland community and encouraged them to continue now towards a 100 per cent double dose vaccination coverage. The region currently has an 87 per cent double dose coverage.

“Thank you so much for the energy, the determination [and] your commitment.

“If you’re waiting for your second dose, don’t wait.”

Of those infected in this outbreak, the proportion without a single dose has dropped from 82 per cent on September 9 to 69 per cent – a rate consistently tracking down.

Meanwhile, the overall hospitalisation rate of all cases has dropped from 9.7 per cent to 6.8 per cent over the same period – a proportion also tracking down.

Alongside these relatively stable and promising numbers, there has been growing political pressure from businesses and residents to see a further easing of restrictions – a pathway the Government has also indicated.

But while the numbers themselves might not be currently straying too far from what has been predicted, those models are based on current restrictions.

Step 2 of level 3 will see indoor retail spaces open up and while there will remain social distancing and enforced mask-wearing, experts expect there will be some level of increased transmission.

Behind the headline numbers was also further evidence the contact tracing system was not keeping up, with 645 unlinked cases in the past 14 days. Of Saturday’s 206 cases less than a quarter had been linked to the outbreak.

That’s why easing of restrictions from Wednesday was likely to see further increases in cases, and in the coming weeks those numbers could begin to outstrip the models.

Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said if that happened, likely around the same time Auckland was hitting 90 per cent full vaccination across its DHBs, it would make the shift to the new traffic light system all the more fraught.

“Really because of what has been said we should expect to see further relaxation, but each step does translate into an increase case numbers and further prevents the vaccination rollout’s impact on bringing them further down.”

Vaccination rates were clearly having an impact, Hendy said, but with still-rising case and hospitalisation numbers they were not currently high enough.

“We are certainly seeing impacts of vaccination, and this is still very much an outbreak in the unvaccinated. But it is just not yet keeping it in check.”

Singapore for example, which has much higher vaccination levels, yet is currently experiencing thousands of cases a day and deaths in the double digits.

Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said it was crucial case numbers were kept as low as possible before the promised shift to the traffic light system, with fewer constraints, which based on Auckland’s vaccination rates could happen by December.

“I think we are in the world of trade-offs now, where we are looking to have greater freedoms particularly for people in Auckland, but inevitably it will result in accelerating the outbreak.

“If we hit December with high transmission rates it might put more pressure on that move.”

Baker said step 2 appeared a manageable shift, but step 3 and the opening up of hospitality could be “a disaster”.

A further question remained around when all school age groups would return, which would also see an increase in case numbers.

Amid Auckland’s prolonged lockdown Ardern has said while primarily focused on public health, the restrictions needed to be matched with public tolerance.

They also needed to take into account the broader societal impacts, including its toll on mental health.

The step-system introduced for the alert levels allowed a more slight easing of restrictions, to minimise the spread of the virus while also allowing greater freedoms.

If Auckland moves too fast and cases begin to skyrocket, reaching the 90 per cent vaccination goal could prove less meaningful and herald a dangerous start to the new traffic light system and living with Covid-19.

Epidemiologist Rod Jackson said it had always been a balancing act and it was extremely hard to do that. “I don’t think anyone could have done any better.”

Delta was so contagious, he said. Everyone in New Zealand was either going to get vaccinated or get Covid.

He said while it was people’s choice not to get vaccinated, it meant if anyone else needed to go into hospital for anything else they wouldn’t get a bed.

He said there were 1.3 million New Zealanders including those under 12 who were unvaccinated. Jackson said schools were a super-spreading setting and New Zealand needed to get its vaccination rates up much higher. He didn’t see why every DHB could get up to 95 per cent like the Auckland DHB had for the first jab.

He also wanted to see the majority of 5 to 11-year-olds vaccinated. “I wouldn’t open primary schools until next year, until we’ve got them vaccinated.”

Jackson urged the government to share their modelling with them so New Zealanders could see how many people were going to die at a 90 per cent vaccination rate.

While it could be chaos on the roads if the Auckland borders opened at Christmas, he said there could actually be much worse consequences.

He also called on more information on the 421,000 who weren’t getting jabbed and said it wasn’t about race as there were far more white people now who were unvaccinated.


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