Health experts have responded to the Government’s move to lift Auckland’s lockdown at midnight with optimism – but one argues it’s still not cautious enough.
“We still don’t have any clear idea how the pandemic virus got through the border and many test results are outstanding,” said prominent epidemiologist Professor Nick Wilson, of Otago University.
He argued it would have been more prudent to have shifted Auckland to an alert level “2.5” with mandated mask use in indoor public places and workplaces, and tightened borders around Auckland.
His colleague, respected epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, today made that same call.
“The value of a targeted approach is greatly reduced if so much movement is allowed around a targeted zone,” Wilson said.
“It really should be closer to zero movement – potentially with only the exceptions of life-threatening emergencies.”
Wilson said that, ultimately, New Zealand was seeing far too many preventable border failures, with 11 since August.
“Australia is also having a notable border failure rate – despite superior processes in hotel-based quarantine when compared to New Zealand.”
He said this highlighted a need to turn down the tap by restricting arrivals from designated “red zone” countries that were badly infected.
“This could be only allowing in humanitarian cases after appropriate both pre-flight testing and pre-flight quarantine.”
Wilson thought vaccination of border workers would almost certainly help.
“But much more needs to be done including getting MIQ facilities out of Auckland, tightening processes in MIQ facilities, and mandating use of QR codes located at potential super-spreading settings such as bars, nightclubs, gyms and churches,” he said.
“Enabling the Bluetooth function on the app should also be mandated for all border workers.
“Without improvements in all these areas it seems likely there will continue to be border failures every few weeks, while we wait to get widespread vaccination of the New Zealand public.”
Fellow Otago epidemiologist Dr Amanda Kvalsvig was similarly still concerned the source remained unknown.
“Despite some reassuring results, stepping down alert levels does introduce risk because there’s less protection against unknown transmission from potential earlier missed cases,” she said.
But she added there were many positives to note.
“As demonstrated with the Auckland August cases, an outbreak can still be controlled even if the original case is never found,” she said.
“New Zealand now has a superb testing and contact tracing system, with people working around the clock and great uptake from the school community.
“We also have a Prime Minister whose understanding of the principles of outbreak control is extremely impressive and on today’s evidence, well up to postgraduate level.
“This ability to ground decisions in evidence and transparency in communicating how decisions are made is a key element of New Zealand’s elimination strategy.”
Otago University infectious diseases expert Professor David Murdoch said the decision showed officials felt the extent of the potential spread had been contained.
“[It shows] there is confidence that all of the close contacts are either being tested or contained at the moment.”
But there was still some concern and uncertainty, he said, given there were still test results to come in, and the source of the scare remained unknown.
“I think it will be a cautious and probably nervous time over the next few days as we see the rest of the results – and hopefully we don’t have any more cases.”
Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank, of Canterbury University and Te Punaha Matatini, said it was reassuring that test results had virtually all come back negative.
“So overall, it’s looking pretty good.”
But, despite clear assumptions that today’s new cases were likely secondary infections from the initial ones, Plank was still concerned at the lingering possibility that transmission could have instead come from them.
“It’s not completely clear to me, from the information that we have at the moment, that we can say definitively either way,” he said.
“But I would add that Dr Bloomfield said that cases D and E were asymptomatic – and that’s good news.
“Because if they’re asymptomatic, it means they’re less likely to have been the source of transmission for the cases A, B, and C.”
Plank said the latest wastewater sampling results, showing no signs of widespread community transmission, offered a little more reassurance, he added that we still hadn’t seen wastewater test results from Papatoetoe High School.