Wellington region goes to Alert Level 2 – Expert Reaction

Wellington will enter Alert Level 2 starting at 6pm tonight, in response to a traveller from Sydney who visited the capital over the weekend and tested positive on his return to Australia.

Social gatherings in the Wellington region – including Wairarapa and Kāpiti Coast – have been capped to no more than 100 people as part of the new restrictions, which will be in effect until 11:59pm on Sunday, 27 June. Genome sequencing is underway in Australia to see if the case is linked to the current outbreak in Sydney.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Epidemiologist, Department of Public Health, University of Otago – Wellington, comments:

“In a way, everything now hinges on one key characteristic of the SARS-CoV-2 virus: most infectious people don’t pass the infection on, but the few that do tend to pass it onto many others. So, we have two possible futures developing. If we’re lucky, the Covid-19 positive visitor may not transmit the infection to anyone. But if we’re unlucky we may soon be dealing with a large outbreak. The traveller from Sydney has visited a large number of Wellington venues, many of which are indoor, crowded places that have potential to trigger superspreading events. The fact that they’ve had one dose of vaccine helps to nudge the odds in a good direction, but it may only provide partial protection.

“So, the rationale for moving to Alert Level 2 is not clear to me. If we’ve been lucky and there’s no outbreak then Alert Level 2 will make no difference, but if there’s an outbreak developing in Wellington right now, moving to Alert Level 2 won’t be enough stop the spread. A far safer and more proportionate response to this risk would be to move to Alert Level 3 and sit tight until more information is available.

“By that same logic, household members of contacts should be asked to stay at home until that contact is in the clear. The new variants are so much more transmissible that in recent outbreaks, it’s not uncommon for all household members of a case become infected. The Wellington case appears to have become infected in their workplace despite having no contact with a known case who was also there, so we already have an indication of a potentially high level of transmissibility.

“Similarly, everyone in Wellington should be taking steps to avoid rebreathing other people’s air until the level of risk is known. That means staying outdoors, opening windows and doors, and wearing a face mask in all public places. It may only be for a few days, but those few days could be critical.”

No conflict of interest

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“The move to Alert Level 2 for Wellington is definitely a sensible precaution in response to the news that a visitor from Sydney has since tested positive for COVID-19. Although we don’t yet know whether they have passed the virus on while in New Zealand, there are a number of risk factors that make this more likely.

“Firstly, although this is yet to be confirmed, it’s likely this person has the Delta variant which is around twice as infectious as the strain we experienced last year. That makes this variant extremely dangerous because of the way cases can grow exponentially. For example, after just three chains of transmission, there would be 8 times as many cases on average. So, where the original variant might have caused 10 cases, the Delta variant could cause 80 cases in the same time which would quickly make it impossible to control without a lockdown.

“Secondly, the person visited a number of busy Wellington locations like bars and has potentially come into contact with a very large number of people over the weekend. These crowded, indoor environments are ideal conditions for a superspreading event to occur.

“Lots of people will have travelled between Wellington and other parts of the country over the weekend. So, it’s possible the virus could be anywhere in New Zealand. Everyone should be aware of this and act accordingly: stay home and get tested if sick, scan in with the app when out and about.

“Moving to Alert Level 2 in Wellington will reduce the risk of further transmission and limit potential superspreading events. This will give our testing and contact tracing system the best chance to get ahead of the virus and get any community transmission under control. If no new cases emerge over the next few days, we may still get lucky. But if we see a significant number of cases arising from busy locations, this will be a danger sign and it will be time to consider whether a further increase to Alert Level 3 is needed.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am partly funded by MBIE for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.”

Professor Graham Le Gros, Immunologist, Director Malaghan Institute of Medical Research; and Programme Director Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo, comments:

“The impact of the weekend visit by a person from Australia infected with SARS-CoV-2 highlights the difficulty of keeping the virus out of New Zealand especially the viral variants which have evolved to be more easily spread from person to person. The proposal that border control, MIQ, and that large geographical bubbles can stay free of virus for extended periods of time is not really possible when dealing with a virus such as SARS-CoV-2. We already have data that the virus can be spread through an intermediary, meaning that there is tremendous pressure on border control and MIQ facilities.

“The major takeaway point from the recent Wellington incident is that we must get our New Zealand population vaccinated as much as possible and as soon as possible to ensure the safety of everyone. The Pfizer vaccine being rolled out in New Zealand from all recent data is able to protect people from all the major variants to date so we can be reassured that the vaccine programme is the best way to protect our future.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Professor Le Gros is Programme Director of the Government-funded Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo, a partnership between the Malaghan Institute, the University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington.”

Dr Sarb Johal, registered clinical psychologist, comments:

“Level 2 for the Wellington region also means that travel is permitted, but you take your Alert Level with you, including physical distancing advice. Please stay tuned as more locations of interest are made known. I’m sure authorities are releasing these locations once received and verified from Australian colleagues – the traveler is in Sydney now.

“People are being asked to test and stay isolated for up to 14 days, depending on the risk assessed. Please stay up-to-date with the Ministry of Health website for the latest evolving advice.

“Keep scanning. Keep laying that breadcrumb trail by using the QR code where you can so we can keep gathering as much data as possible to speed up any tracing and reduce the chance of lockdowns. Level 2 means we need to change our behaviour, but it is not a lockdown. Let’s stick to the guidance and advice to stay at home and get tested if that applies to you to reduce the risk of any further escalation.”

No conflicts of interest declared