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This weekend’s Super Saturday “vaxathon” has inched Auckland closer to a double-dose milestone of 90 per cent – but a Covid-19 modeller still warns the city risks facing months longer in lockdown without an urgent circuit-breaker.
A total 9039 first jabs were administered across Auckland on Saturday, along with 32,042 second doses, amid the nationwide vaccination push.
A shortfall of 20,360 vaccinations left Auckland “tantalisingly close” to the region reaching the 90 per cent mark for first doses, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said.
With the current local daily average of 4000 first doses, however, that threshold could be reached this week.
Ministers have a three-pronged decision on their hands when they meet at Cabinet today, with alert level restrictions in Northland, Auckland, and the Waikato set to be reviewed.
Experts say change is unlikely in Auckland and the Waikato, with cases teetering on the edge of dangerous growth rates. Northland, however, appears to have the outbreak contained and could possibly have lockdown restrictions eased, moving to level 2.
Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said that, once Auckland reached the point where 90 per cent of its over-12 population had been vaccinated, hard restrictions like level 3 could be eased.
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“But all of this is contingent on having low case numbers, because it assumes that we can stay in the game with contact tracing,” he said.
“At the moment, I think the number of unlinked cases we are seeing means that contact tracers are really under the pump, and can’t sustain what they’re doing for much longer.
“Ideally, if we’d had that 90 per cent double-dose level for two weeks, and we had the ability to contact trace, we could get to that situation where we don’t have to rely on lockdowns.”
As at Sunday, Auckland’s coverage for full vaccination stood at 1,013,594 people – or 71 per cent of the eligible population.
All the while, experts have warned daily case counts have been growing on a trajectory where the number of new cases was doubling around every 12 days.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson has also warned cases will soon hit triple digits, with the number of daily cases expected to double by the end of this month.
Where to get a vaccination in Auckland – without a booking
This map shows large vaccinations centres from the Unite again Covid-19 information page. For more detailed information about your neighbourhood visit Healthpoint.
Concerningly, the Ministry of Health’s public health director Dr Caroline McElnay last week revealed that just 170 to 180 new cases would put pressure on the contact tracing system.
The ministry has already stopped counting subclusters in Auckland because there were so many unlinked cases.
Hendy said New Zealand otherwise might have been well placed to move into a new stage of its pandemic response, if not for the worsening Delta outbreak.
“If you’d talked to me a few months ago, before this outbreak, I would have said New Zealand would be in a good position, because we could enter this next phase with low case numbers.”
But when case numbers were high, he explained, public health systems like test-trace-quarantine couldn’t operate well enough, which pushed the load for reducing cases back onto the public.
“The concern at the moment is we are possibly on the cusp of where our contact tracing and other targeted public health interventions will start to fall over.”
Currently, the outbreak’s effective reproduction number, measuring the average number of other infections that one case created, was estimated to be at around 1.3.
“And if it tilts up to 1.4 or 1.5 – which it might, if some of our targeted public health interventions fall over – then we’re talking months at level 3, to bring it down to where interventions can start really taking care of things again.”
Because of that growing risk, Hendy and other experts have been pushing for a temporary jump back to level 4, which they say could stop the outbreak from growing much bigger, and buy time to get vaccination rates to where they needed to be.
The Government has signalled no appetite for such a move.
On Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the Herald that the primary source of growth in the outbreak wasn’t in workplaces but households interacting under lockdown, which wasn’t permitted under levels 3 or 4.
“So for us, it’s about what will work, what makes a difference. And we’ll keep asking our public health advisers for that advice and to date, they have not advised us to change the alert level.”
Instead, the Government is poised to this week announce a new “traffic light” system, which incorporates vaccine certificates and is meant to replace alert levels when the population is highly vaccinated.
According to people familiar with a Zoom call in which the framework was presented, the general feedback was that it wasn’t fit for purpose, and its usefulness was for a time when enough of the population was fully vaccinated – which could be months away.
Around 15 per cent of the country’s eligible population still remained unvaccinated, putting them at higher risk of infection and of spreading the virus.
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker argued that, as things stood, there was no justification for easing restrictions in Auckland.
“I just think the Government needs to be following the modelling and evidence that it’s commissioned,” he said.
“We also need higher coverage of our most vulnerable – and at the moment, coverage is far too low among Māori and Pasifika.”
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