ANALYSIS: Concerns from some of our top Covid modellers, Shaun Hendy and Rodney Jones, that case numbers have not fallen yet should send a shiver down the nation’s collective spine.
The number of daily cases in Auckland’s Delta community outbreak continues to climb, despite earlier suggestions we should have seen the ‘peak’ by now.
Earlier this week, Government officials said they anticipated the outbreak would start to peak about day 8-10. On Saturday, there were 82 new cases – the highest daily total to date – totalling 429 cases over just 11 days.
The country is currently at alert level 4, with everywhere south of the Auckland-Waikato border moving to level 3 at 11.59pm Tuesday. Cabinet will review Auckland and Northland’s settings on Monday. Previous indications were they would remain at level 4 for another two weeks.
In New South Wales, the state with the worst outbreak in Australia, a lot of Delta cases spread through essential workers working in supply chains. If this is silently happening in New Zealand, the very thing that enables level 4 lockdown – the free flow of supplies to keep household fed and well – could be spreading the virus.
“You hope the curve will flatten, but so far we haven’t had one day of lower cases. Each day has brought more,” Jones told Stuff on Saturday.
“The curve hasn’t bent enough.”
While Jones said you couldn’t know, the numbers were consistent with spread among essential workers.
“We are still in the midst of a classic Delta outbreak, [one which is] unfolding faster than in Australian states,” he said.
The prime minister confirmed on Friday that there had been transmission of Covid-19 in three essential workplaces.
“A Covid-positive person has passed it on to someone they work alongside – they are non-public facing,” Ardern said.
This once again highlights how Delta will stretch New Zealand’s alert level system to the limit, and test whether the Government’s elimination strategy will continue to work. If it doesn’t, Labour will only be left with hard choices: Covid in the community and a largely unvaccinated population, even though the vaccination programme is now ramping up.
This is precisely what happened in NSW, which has threatened Victoria and Queensland with new outbreaks.
During the week the Doherty Institute in Australia – an infectious disease centre working with the Australian Government to plan its way out of Covid isolation – issued a statement on its modelling on opening Australia up.
“In an average year of influenza, we would roughly have 600 deaths and 200,000 cases in Australia. Any death is a tragedy, but our health system can cope with this. In the Covid-19 modelling, opening up at 70 per cent vaccine coverage of the adult population with partial public health measures, we predict 385,983 symptomatic cases and 1457 deaths over six months.
“With optimal public health measures [and no lockdowns], this can be significantly reduced to 2737 infections and 13 deaths.”
Those public health measures mentioned are summed up as “test, trace, isolate and quarantine”.
According to Doherty, which Sir David Skegg cited a few weeks ago when playing his part in the ‘Reconnecting New Zealand’ forum, the above is an attainable aim.
Australia has set vaccination targets and is doing modelling on what is required at different scenarios.
There are still pretty massive political fights between the Commonwealth Government and the states over how much Covid to let in and how fast. Basically all states have had an elimination strategy. NSW’s quickly increasing Delta spread has put those at risk.
In New Zealand the political path taken has been quite different. Instead of having a vaccine target and then a firm and telegraphed idea about opening up after that, New Zealand has decided to try to get everyone vaccinated who wants to be and then go from there.
It is hoped the rate will be above 80 per cent of the eligible population. The surge in numbers lining up for jabs since lockdown is a good sign.
But the elimination strategy, at this stage, will still be retained alongside a strategy of slowly opening up to high-risk countries. This seemed like it would be a tricky balance to say the least when announced two weeks ago.
But now that Government is throwing the kitchen sink at Delta, it has become clear just what that entails.
New Zealand has been blessed by having options due to a lack of Covid in the community. Australia did – and then suddenly didn’t – have the same options, which is why it has chosen the path to reopening that it has.
New Zealand has never appeared to have a back-up plan in case elimination doesn’t work out.
Numbers were expected to start dropping by now
University of Auckland physics professor and Covid-19 modeller Shaun Hendy was “somewhat alarmed” by Saturday’s figures, as experts were expecting numbers to start to “flatten and drop off from about now”.
“I had hoped to see them really plateau,” he said.
Until we start to see case numbers coming down, and while the trend is not clear, “the end is not sight, unfortunately”.
At this stage, a further two weeks at alert level 4 for Auckland is “not looking long enough”, he said.
However, Hendy said it was important not to read too much into a single day’s case numbers. While it does make the trend look like it’s increasing, this could be the spike before the fall.
This week, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield repeatedly reassured New Zealand that while case numbers were increasing, the rate was not exponential.
If the R number (the number of people, on average, an infected person will pass the virus to) is above 1, the spread is exponential. If it is below 1, the virus will run out of steam.
Earlier this week Ardern said she had been advised the R number of the current Delta outbreak was around 6.
Hendy said we want to be able to see “asap” that level 4 has brought the R value down to 1.
It was “mixed news” and a “complicated situation”, he said: “I think we have to wait a while”.
The good news is that most of the cases being reported are associated with the largest clusters, including the Assembly of God church and the Birkdale cluster – 70 of Saturday’s 82 cases.
This is “less alarming” than if these cases were in the community.
Given the high chance of transmission within households, it is likely the steady growth in cases reflects people being infected at home, he said.
That locations of interest are not “ballooning” also suggests spread is not happening in the community, he said.
If it is clear case numbers aren’t plateauing over the next few days, the Government will need to take a “really fine read” on where they are coming from.
The big concern would be spread through essential services, or among those not adhering to level 4 restrictions, he said.
If this is happening via essential services, authorities would likely need to “take another look” at what businesses are able to be open at level 4 and which aren’t, he said.
Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles said it was important Kiwis “don’t panic” that case numbers haven’t yet started to come down.
“It’s really important we don’t start to enter the mindset that [lockdown] isn’t working,” she said.
The continued increase of cases is a reflection of how infectious Delta is, and most likely reflect transmission within households, she said.
She also called for the Government to provide some information on how cases are linked when possible, to be assured of this.
There was a lot of transmission early on in the outbreak and superspreading events such as at the Assembly of God church cluster, which has seen 197 confirmed cases as of Saturday.
“This outbreak is going to get big,” Wiles said.