Spike in cases as Covid affects housing-insecure people – Expert Reaction

A gradual declining trend in community Covid case numbers has been interrupted, with 45 new infections reported today.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said many of the cases this week have been in large households, and people in emergency or transitional housing.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the latest figures.

Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen (Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Hinerangi), Clinical Director, National Hauora Coalition, comments:

“The Covid-19 delta variant has reached communities that are made vulnerable by poverty and housing overcrowding. These communities have the most exposure to Covid because they are overcrowded, have less income and have been historically poorly served by health and social sectors.

“These communities have many low paid essential workers who cannot work from home. These communities have not had tailored communications to inform them and motivate them to take up the vaccination. These households may include many young people and children, and may be less amenable to mainstream traditional approaches.

“Outbreaks in these communities will require extra effort, extra resources and service providers who are culturally concordant. It is in our collective interest to engage authentically and invest our efforts and resources to support these communities towards elimination or containment.”

No conflict of interest declared.

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

“It has been 9 days since the move to level 3 was announced and 7 days since it took effect. Given the incubation period of the virus, this is the first time we would expect to see the effect of the alert level change in case numbers. So it is concerning to see this number of cases today. We have seen numbers bounce around before – today’s cases include 33 household contacts or known contacts of a case. So it’s possible they will go back down again over the next few days.

“But it is concerning that there are 12 cases yet to be linked, some of whom have been infectious while in the workplace. With the increase in the number of people back at work at level 3, this creates more opportunities for the virus to spread and this will make the outbreak harder to contain.

“If numbers do start to trend upwards again, the government faces some tough decisions. Reducing the alert level is likely to cause an explosion in cases and, with a large number of people either unvaccinated or yet to receive their second dose, the population is still vulnerable. Level 3 may be enough to keep the outbreak in check, but that could mean Auckland is stuck in level 3 for a long time until a lot more people have been able to get their second dose. The Delta variant is really good at finding unvaccinated people. So the message is clear: get vaccinated.”

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

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:

“The significant increase in reported COVID-19 case numbers today is worrying, given the Alert Level 3 conditions in the Auckland Region where more people are out and about at work.

“Unlinked mystery cases are continuing to appear which is also of concern and highlight the need for everyone to remain vigilant.

“We are continuing to experience first-hand how quickly and easily Delta can spread and infect – this 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 must continue to increase across age groups, geographic locations and all ethnic groups to help keep everyone safe from COVID-19.

“The implications for the COVID-19 situation moving forward includes having an equity focus for vaccination, testing and prevention efforts – this means doing what it takes to get people the help they need, whether it be the vaccine or a test or other health and support services needed.

“It is critical that those who need to have a COVID-19 test still come forward to have this done, and should not be vilified in doing so.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Associate Professor Alex James, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The large spike in cases today could be the first sign of a rise in transmission due to the drop to Alert Level 3. Even under Level 4 case numbers were dropping very slowly, if at all. If Alert Level 3 can’t contain this outbreak we may need to face the truth that elimination hasn’t worked. We’re also seeing a big slow down in vaccination rates which put the 90% goal even further away.

“Children and young people are often the ones most affected by social restrictions. Kids in Auckland will have missed nearly a whole school term, do we want them to miss even more? We’ve seen from other countries the poor mental health outcomes and rising inequality that online school and closed nurseries bring. We need to start a conversation about how long we want this to go on for and how to find a middle ground between a long, detrimental lockdown and the possibility of upward spiralling case numbers in Level 2.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Lesley Gray, Senior Lecturer, Department of Primary Health Care & General Practice, University of Otago, comments:

“Those of us working in the disaster risk reduction and public health space recognise that the poorest and most marginalized people in society with the greatest socio-economic disadvantage prior to a disaster are at greater risk than the general population during and following a disaster. This includes people with precarious housing.

“It is therefore no surprise that people with least resources are being most impacted in this pandemic, in particular with Delta variant that thrives in overcrowded environments. This is not the fault of such populations it is the circumstances and limited resources that limit options. Such circumstances are at the heart of the concept of disaster vulnerability. Our aim as a country should be to leave ‘no one behind’ when rebuilding from this pandemic.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Emeritus Innes Asher, Department of Paediatrics: Child and Youth Health, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, comments:

“This is no surprise at all as housing instability is a severe, chronic and worsening crisis in New Zealand. The people of Aotearoa are reaping what many governments have sown over many decades.

“In a recent report on the first year of COVID, Child Poverty Action Group asked what were some of the ways in which already-disadvantaged children faced the most severe effects of COVID-19. They found:

  • Rent acceleration disproportionately affected low-income whānau and families
  • Increased homelessness for families with children in precarious situations
  • Government neglect of homeless youth – young people who became homeless under the age of 18 were forgotten
  • Inhumane conditions in some government-arranged emergency housing for children and their families
  • Long stays in emergency housing.”

Note: Professor Asher is a children’s health spokesperson for Child Poverty Action Group.

No conflict of interest declared.