Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Lockdown and alert-level decision day – experts urge Jacinda Ardern, Government to be cautious

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Experts are urging a few more days in lockdown across the country as part of a “cautious approach” to containing the Delta outbreak.

Cabinet will today decide whether to change alert level 4 restrictions in place until 11.59pm tonight for the country, aside from Auckland. New Zealand’s biggest city is in lockdown until 11.59pm on Tuesday, with the strong likelihood this will extend.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues have given little away ahead of today’s decision, but experts say any decision comes with risk, and officials will be closely examining the potential for any spread outside Auckland and Wellington, including any contacts of cases still awaiting test results.

Other key questions will be exactly how soon the levels change and the geographic spread, with suggestions the country could be split into three regions – Auckland, the rest of the North Island and the South Island.

More than 24,000 contacts have been identified so far, including hundreds spread across the South Island.For this reason, experts urge a few more days to reach the 14-day incubation period of the virus.

Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said there was still a risk the virus could be incubating outside Auckland and Wellington.

Level 3 was good at containing spread, but not at eliminating the virus, Baker said.

Bar any developments, a “cautious” approach could see the South Island enter level 3 from Tuesday, meaning it had been through a full 14-incubation period since the lockdown began.

Level 3 included opening up gatherings to 10, and limited hospitality services, but still prevented large gatherings including most businesses and schools.

“It is feasible [to go to level 3] from this weekend, but carries more risk,” Baker said.

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It was also feasible the North Island, bar Auckland, could also be lowered to level 3 then, but there remained some risk given the 12 cases in Wellington.

The fact they were all contained in their bubbles and there had been no spread was reassuring, Baker said.

“One option could be for Wellington and/or the North Island to hold on a bit longer, and then effectively split the country into three zones with Auckland.”

More information about cases that were already effectively quarantined, in their bubbles, and those that were out in the community needed to be provided, Baker said.

If there was a move down alert levels, Baker said the Government should look to carry mandatory mask use in certain crowded indoor levels with it.

Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said daily case numbers should begin to level out over the next days – and then begin dropping.

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Modellers wanted to see the basic reproduction number, or R0 – that’s the expected number of infections in an outbreak generated by one case – fall below 1, meaning the outbreak could be stamped out.

“We had been hoping see that happen by tomorrow, but the lags in testing have probably spread that out a bit,” he said. “Also, we are expecting to see more cases from within households, too – which means we’ll maybe have an extended period where our numbers are flat, rather than declining.

“But I’d hope that, by next week, we’ll be getting a clear signal that we’re below an R0 of 1.”

He said we could have optimism if no further infections were detected outside Auckland, or that were unrelated to the small number confirmed in Wellington.

“We’d be hopeful that we don’t see cases in the South Island over the next while, and if that’s the case, I think a shift to alert level 3 – and hopefully to level 2 not too long after that – is on the cards,” he said.

“For Auckland, we don’t want the scale of this outbreak getting much bigger, because of the strain that it’s putting on the health system at the moment.

“So we’d like to see alert level 4 do its thing and get those daily case numbers down to single digits.”

Hendy said the scale of this outbreak compared more with New Zealand’s main wave then last August’s community outbreak,but we now had better systems in place to manage cases.

“That means we should – assuming our systems stay intact – mop up those last cases a lot more quickly than we did last year.”

A decision on Auckland’s lockdown will come on Monday, but with still-rising case numbers there is a firm view among experts level 4 will continue there for potentially weeks after the Tuesday deadline.

The 68 new cases reported in the community yesterday was the highest daily number yet in the current outbreak, bringing the total to 277.

Of those, 34 people had received one dose of the Pfizer vaccine and 10 were fully vaccinated, director of public health Caroline McElnay said.

There were 263 cases in Auckland and 14 in Wellington. There was no evidence of any spread outside those two regions.

Covid-19 had been detected in Christchurch wastewater, though McElnay pointed out there were three active cases in managed isolation in the city. Samples from nearly every other wastewater catchment were negative, she said.

In Wellington, Covid-19 continued to only be detected at Moa Pt. No new results had been reported from Auckland wastewater since Wednesday.

Ardern said 16 cases had not been connected to the current outbreak, but they were probable and still being investigated.

All other cases infected since lockdown began had come from close and/or household contacts, and there was no evidence of community transmission, McElnay said.

There were 495 locations of interest – but only three new ones were added today: a pre-lockdown rugby game and two supermarket visits post-lockdown.

This all showed the lockdown was having an impact, Ardern said.

The virus hasn’t spread beyond Auckland and Wellington. If it weren’t for lockdown, Ardern said she was sure we would have seen cases spread further.

“With Delta, people are infectious much sooner and appear to give it more people. We can expect the lag time in our numbers to be longer and bigger,” Ardern said.

There are still six sub-clusters. The Birkdale Social Network cluster has 35 confirmed cases and the Māngere church cluster has 114 cases.

Sixty-five per cent of contacts have been followed up by contact tracers and individuals were self-isolating. Seventy-one per cent of all close contacts have had a test.

Meanwhile, epidemiologist Sir David Skegg warned that the Auckland lockdown could last for weeks, and warned that life will get more difficult for people after the country reopens its borders.

“It is unlikely the lockdown will end next Tuesday, it’ll be a matter of weeks I fear,” Skegg said.

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