Covid-19 Delta outbreak: Race to vaccinate Auckland; no new unlinked cases for two days in a row

By Thomas Coughlan

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Auckland has been given the best news it has had since the start of the outbreak - there have been no new unlinked cases for two days in a row.

And there's more good news, with the Government pegging Auckland could hit a vaccine milestone next week.

There were no unlinked cases reported on Tuesday and officials were able to find a link for the single unlinked case reported on Monday.

There were 15 community cases, but all of these were linked to existing cases.

What that means is officials have growing certainty that the latest outbreak is contained. The news is especially welcome after a spate of cases arriving at Middlemore Hospital suggested unlinked chains of transmission in the community.

Health Minister Andrew Little Told the AM how the plan was for Auckland to come out of level 4 next week and the numbers were looking good if yesterday was anything to go by. He said they strongly hoped the numbers would continue to drop.

"We will keep everything crossed, but so far the indications are as good as they could be."

Little was expecting a specific strategy from the Ministry of Health in the next three to four weeks about what a system would look like when New Zealand doesn't resort to lockdowns. He said the way to avoid putting pressure on the health system was to get the vaccination numbers up.

Little said he asked for the specific strategy last week in terms of setting up systems and processes for people who can be cared for in the community.

He said people who were vaccinated had a much lower chance of needing hospitalisation.

But before this happened, more people needed to be vaccinated, he said. Little said even with a highly vaccinated population with the borders open, the number of Covid cases would go up.

"We want to lead the world in vaccination rates."

7.05am: Foodstuffs boss Chris Quin; reputation specialist Chris Galloway
7.15am: Auckland Airport boss Adrian Littlewood
7.35am: Health Minister Andrew Little
8.05am: Stuart Nash and Mark Mitchell

The city is not out of the woods yet. The focus is still widespread testing in seven key suburbs to ensure there are no undetected chains of transmission.

Testing remains high in Auckland, where 7823 tests were conducted on Monday, compared with 12,443 in the rest of the country. That rate of testing is slightly below where it was last week, where some days more than 8000 tests were reported in the city.

The Government is sticking by its decision to shift Auckland's Covid alert level from 4 to 3 next week - all going well.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stuck with this strategy on Tuesday, noting the Government intended this week would be the last week the city would spend under level 4 restrictions.

"There is nothing holding us back in Auckland when it comes to vaccines. There is capacity to administer 220,000 doses of the vaccine in the region this week, if around 130 [thousand] of those are people's first dose, Aucklanders will hit 80 per cent coverage of first vaccinations in one week's time," Ardern said.

This would mean 80 per cent of Aucklanders over 12 having some protection against the virus.

Ardern said this would mean fewer people getting Covid in the first place, or getting seriously ill if they did contract Covid - meaning it would be a gamechanger in fighting the virus.

Speaking to Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking, Little today said there was still work to do to get the vaccination rate "right up".

When pressed to provide a vaccination target, he said he wanted to get the numbers "right up into the 90s".

He said New Zealand would be in a better position to reduce restrictions when the vaccination right was up in the 90s.

"We've got vaccinations for Africa now .. We've got the vaccines, we just need to get people through," he said.

Little said he hoped the percentage of people who would not get vaccinated would not be above 5 per cent.

Questioned about the rapid antigen testing used in Australia, he said there was a higher risk to use this in a smaller population like New Zealand's

When asked about whether he could have sped up the delivery of vaccines, he said New Zealand had done pretty well considering negotiations began in the middle of last year.

He said "the trajectory is very good" of New Zealand's vaccination delivery.

Little told TVNZ's Breakfast programme that more work needs to be done to get more Māori vaccinated.

Part of that work will be about providing more information to some of those isolated communities, where "theories" about the vaccine were doing the rounds, he said.

"Actually, don't get vaccinated for yourself, it's for your whānau."

Little encouraged Māori to think about their wider community, including kaumātua, when making the decision to get vaccinated.

The consequences including hospitalisation if those kaumātua got sick with the virus.

Little acknowledged the lack of access to healthcare among some of our most vulnerable communities - including Māori and Pacific peoples.

"We are still behind vaccination rates [among] Māori, we know that."

Ardern urged Aucklanders to come forward and get a booking, noting there were 90,000 available vaccination spots in Auckland this week, as measured by the vaccine booking system.

But the large number of available vaccination places could be a problem too - evidence that the vaccination surge of the past month may be starting to level off. Other nations have struggled to get vaccination rates of 80 per cent.

England, a vaccine leader, has managed to give 89 per cent of its adult population (aged 16 and over) one dose - and just 67 per cent of Londoners have had their first dose.

Other countries have found that demand for vaccine drops off later in the outbreak, as fewer and fewer people want to be vaccinated.

New Zealand has also seen something of a drop-off. On Monday, just 55,000 doses of the vaccine were administered - well down from the 80-90,000 doses that were being given at the peak of the outbreak.

Ardern said that some drop-off was to be expected.

National leader Judith Collins told TV1's Breakfast programme that it is important for the alert level 4 lockdown continue in Auckland.

She acknowledged that vaccination was the way out as it helps to guard and keep people safe from the virus.

Collins said the Government's response had not been good enough in previous months.

As a result, members of the public are now heavily affected - particularly small businesses.

"It is simply not a good enough response," she said.

She said people in her electorate had been contacting her to let her know how hard they have found lockdown.

Many were living in small homes with big families.

"It's very, very hard."

Collins reiterated the need for people to get vaccinated in order for things to move forward.

National's Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said he was "worried by the low numbers".

"We really should be going as hard as we possibly can to get as many people vaccinated as possible," he said.

"The peak [of daily vaccinations] was three weeks ago, we would want to maintain that peak ideally," Bishop said.

"We should be going door to door in South Auckland in particular and encouraging people to get vaccinated," he said.

Ardern said something like this would be launched in Northland on Thursday when a "Mr Whippy-style mobile vaccination bus" would hit the road.

"The initial plan is to take them into areas where we know vaccination numbers have been low or people have not been able to access vaccination services as easily," Ardern said.

"The aim is to increase the network from its expected six on Thursday to 12 over the coming week."

Rodney Jones, who has provided modelling advice to the Government for this outbreak said that Auckland could move to alert level 3 next week, as planned.

"It was right to wait this week, but a move to level 3 makes sense for next week," Jones said.

He was the Government would still need to "wait and see" what the pandemic delivered over the next few days.

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