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Auckland peeks further out of lockdown – Expert Reaction

The Prime Minister has confirmed Auckland will move to Alert Level 3, Step 2 on Wednesday – and set an expected date for the move to the ‘traffic light’ Covid-19 Protection Framework.

Jacinda Ardern said November 29 is the date when the city will likely move to the framework’s Red level, which makes use of vaccine passports. Medsafe has also approved booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine for over-18s, at least six months after their second dose.

See here for earlier comments on this topic.

The SMC asked experts to comment.

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

“Easing restrictions in Auckland while cases are doubling about every 12 days is a risky move. The government is banking on the new freedoms not contributing to a big increase in transmission. However, with 700 cases from the last 2 weeks remaining unlinked, the reality is we don’t actually know where a significant proportion of our cases are coming from. Interactions in a typical retail setting are lower risk than in say hospitality and social gatherings. However, they will still provide opportunities for the virus to spread through the community so some increase in cases is probably inevitable.

“Increasing vaccination rates mean that we can tolerate a higher level of cases in the community. However, cases do still matter and we can’t afford to let them spiral completely out of control. The number of cases is putting an increasing strain on our contact tracing system. And while the vaccine has weakened the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths, it hasn’t broken the link altogether. Hospitalisations are already rising and a further increase in cases could put significant pressure on our healthcare system.

“The health impacts of this outbreak are not equitably distributed. Although we have good vaccine coverage in older age groups, Māori are a key group who are also at higher risk from Covid and yet have less protection from the vaccine. In the next few weeks as Auckland approaches the 90% double vaccinated targeted, we should also remember the 90,000 Aucklanders who have had their first dose but not yet their second.

“One piece of good news today is that Medsafe has given provisional approval for the use of Pfizer booster doses 6 months after the second dose. Experience overseas shows that a comprehensive booster programme is essential to mitigating the effects of waning immunity. It’s already almost 9 months since the first New Zealanders were vaccinated so the clock is ticking and New Zealand needs to make sure it’s in a position to begin offering boosters early in 2022.”

Conflict of interest statement: Michael Plank is partly funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 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:

“It was announced today that the Auckland Region will move to Alert Level 3, Step 2 from 11.59pm Tuesday, 9th November 2021. Restrictions in the Auckland Region continue to be eased with record COVID-19 case numbers, continuing hospitalisations and increasing unlinked mystery cases of unknown origin.

“Although it’s been encouraging to see vaccination rates increase across Aotearoa New Zealand, and with 90% for 1st doses and 80% for 2nd doses for the Auckland Region reached over the weekend, it is critical that DHBs also reach at least 90 – 95% full vaccinations for Māori and Pacific peoples.

“The implications for the COVID-19 response and priority-setting moving forward is to ensure an equity focus, where vulnerable groups are prioritised – not left behind in a way that will exacerbate pre-existing health inequities.

“Expectation was also expressed today that the Auckland Region would move into the COVID-19 Protection Framework/Traffic Light System on 29th November 2021. Double dose vaccination targets for Māori and Pacific peoples of at least 90 – 95% will be needed however to help keep our most vulnerable communities safe from COVID-19 – and also includes protecting our children and young people.

“The positive COVID-19 cases that include 4 staff and 20 residents of the Edmonton Meadows Care Home in Henderson are worrying, with 7 residents receiving appropriate ward level care in hospital.

“Devastating also that individuals have passed away while in isolation during this Delta outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand – sympathies and condolences are respectfully extended to all family and whānau at this time.

“Leaving anyone behind and unprotected, given the adverse health impact already seen for vulnerable groups in Aotearoa New Zealand, will have far reaching consequences.

“The best protection from COVID-19 available now is achieved with 2 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The first vaccine dose primes the immune response and offers some protection, however it’s the second vaccine dose that boosts the immune response and offers stronger and longer lasting protection against COVID-19. The Medsafe approval for a booster dose of Pfizer for those aged 18 and over, six months after their second dose is an important step, with further consideration by the Technical Advisory Group to be undertaken.

“Vaccination is still key – with the purchase agreement for an additional 4.7 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine signed last week an important move.

“While moving into a vaccinated environment, at least 90 – 95% full vaccinations especially for Māori and Pacific peoples will help keep our most vulnerable communities safe from COVID-19 to ensure no-one is being left behind.

“The best way to protect our children who don’t yet have access to a vaccine approved for them, is for everyone around them to get vaccinated. Of those affected by the current Delta outbreak, a total of 759 or 17% were children aged 9 years and under, who were infected by the virus and ended up with COVID-19 – this also included babies and a 6 week old over the weekend.

“Getting vaccinated demonstrates our commitment to keeping others safe – including our most vulnerable.

“Please get vaccinated, get tested, follow the Alert level rules and reach out to help others do the same.”

No conflict of interest declared.