Same Alert Levels to continue for another week – Expert Reaction

New Zealand’s current alert level settings will stay the course for another week as “mystery cases” of Covid-19 still emerge in Auckland.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Auckland will stay in Alert Level 4 until next Tuesday night, and – in principle – will then move to Alert Level 3. The rest of the country will stay at Alert Level 2 for another week. Settings will be reviewed next Monday. While the PM says there is no widespread community transmission in Auckland, the unexpected cases, and three remaining sub-clusters, require more investigation.

The SMC asked experts to comment on this announcement.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“It is acknowledged a phenomenal amount of work and sacrifice has been made to maintain and follow appropriate COVID-19 Alert Level conditions and restrictions in response to the current Delta outbreak, particularly by those currently in the Auckland Region.

“The current outbreak originated with a single case of the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus reaching into our communities at a time when vaccination rates were low.

“Current vaccination levels in Aotearoa New Zealand will need to continue increasing to help keep everyone safe from COVID-19.

“Acceleration in vaccination efforts for Pacific and Māori communities has been realised more recently by community-driven Pacific and Māori-led events and activities held around the country to improve vaccine accessibility and vaccination rates – it is hoped more of these events will continue moving forward.

“It is encouraging to know more of the unlinked cases have subsequently been accounted for, although mystery cases persist and are being picked up through surveillance and community testing efforts rather than through contact tracing, which is of concern.

“For those needing to have COVID-19 tests, it is important to have these done. Asymptomatic testing is also being organised in places where additional testing is needed.

“It is critical that those who are unwell and require hospital or emergency care, don’t put off coming forward for the medical care needed.

“We cannot become complacent – there is too much at stake for everyone.”

No conflict of interest.

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

“I fully support the government’s decision to extend the current alert levels in Auckland and the rest of New Zealand. The recent emergence of ‘mystery cases’ suggests there may be a small number of cases in the Auckland community we haven’t found yet. If Auckland moved to Alert Level 3, these cases could trigger a resurgence. Model results show that it could talk up to two weeks for us to see the effect of this resurgence in our case numbers, by which time the number of people infected could be much larger. This would set us back weeks.

“Although the number of cases has increased in recent days, some volatility in numbers is to be expected at this stage of the outbreak. This is partly due to our contact tracing system catching up with chains of transmission that were previously missed, often leading to the discovery large numbers of cases in single households. The fact that the government has made an in-principle decision to move down to Alert Level 3 from next Wednesday indicates that public health teams are increasingly confident the outbreak is gradually coming under control. Provided the number of unlinked cases and cases infectious in the community both trend downwards over the week ahead, this is a realistic possibility.

“A crucial factor in building confidence the outbreak is contained over the next week is community testing. It’s absolutely essential that anyone with any symptoms get tested immediately. Don’t wait to see if it gets better. Don’t think it can’t be COVID because you’ve been vaccinated. Don’t chalk it down to a cold. Colds have actually become less widespread in the last few weeks due to the lockdown. So, if you do fell unwell, it could very easily be COVID.

“Many outside of Auckland will be frustrated to remain at Alert Level 2 when there are no known cases. It’s important to remember that thousands of essential workers cross the alert level boundary every day, including to transport supplies all around the country. No border is watertight and so while there are active community cases in Auckland, Alert Level 2 is an essential safeguard if a case does leak out. A move to Alert Level 1 would risk another explosive outbreak in another part of New Zealand, which would send the whole country back to square one.”

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