Through Pierre Wilson*
Analysis – Auckland’s outlook gloomy as cases rise and government begins to prepare for worst-case scenarios, hospitals brace for crisis and home isolation will need to be used to help ease the pressure on the MIQ system already stressed.
After mixed messages from the government last week on its Covid-19 elimination strategy, the virus delivered its own: forget it.
As cases in Auckland continued to rise and the number of unrelated cases increased, the bleak outlook for the city and the danger to the rest of the country became clear.
“It’s a matter of time before we start to see cases popping up across the country and we need to be prepared for that,” Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Newshub’s Morning show.
After RNZ requested government modeling and was turned down, Hipkins said it didn’t take a mathematician to figure out that the number of cases was doubling every two weeks and would continue to skyrocket.
“This is leading you to an exponential growth curve… there is no doubt that we are entering a period where we are likely to see some pretty significant growth in the number of cases,” he said.
As of Thursday, there were 71 new cases, including 28 unrelated. Of the 55 cases the day before, 21 were still unrelated.
Over the course of a few days, the government’s message shifted from a determination to “eliminate it” to an apparent acceptance that the Auckland epidemic can, at best, be suppressed to a level at which the system health can cope.
Stuff political editor Luke Malpass put it bluntly: “The lockdown system fought Delta, and Delta won.”
The herald Derek Cheng said vaccination was now Auckland’s only way out of lockdown, and he saw it as a problem.
“The prime minister spoke of leaving no group behind,” Cheng said. “This means that 90 percent of the eligible population (to be vaccinated) means little if there are still pockets of thousands of unvaccinated people who would be in the crosshairs of the virus at level 2.”
Cheng said most of the suburbs where the virus was rooted had lower first dose / second dose averages than the Auckland average (87 percent / 64% at the time of writing).
He listed eight suburbs with lower rates, saying it was known that vaccination rates among young Maori and Pasifika – the groups that made up the majority of known active cases – would be lower than the numbers in the suburbs.
His report quoted Maori GP Rawiri Jackson: “It’s right across Auckland. He’s going to travel among younger people who are more social, more connected, and then he’ll land in homes of seven to 10 people.”
Cheng said Aucklanders would be protected from the worst impacts of the virus if they continued to follow the rules and if the current momentum of the vaccination campaign continued.
“The consequences of either of these falls are terrifying to contemplate,” he said.
The potential for such consequences was exposed in RNZ’s report on home isolation measures for people infected with Covid-19.
“Modeling suggests the number of Covid-19 cases could overwhelm managed isolation spaces, with a worst-case model predicting 5,200 cases per week, only in the Auckland and Northland areas,” the report says. .
“This modeling is based on a 90 percent vaccination rate, which these regions have not achieved.
“Even at a fraction of those rates, the quarantine hotels would be jam-packed. “
The modeling was commissioned by the Ministry of Health. Its chief medical officer, Andrew Connolly, said that at these figures the vast majority of people would be asked to self-isolate at home.
“Much of our work is now directed towards preparing for self-isolation or isolation within the community,” he said.
Hipkins said home quarantine will be introduced as soon as possible, describing it as a necessary step to prevent MIQ spaces from being further limited for people coming from overseas to New Zealand.
Health Minister Andrew Little called a press conference Thursday to give assurances on hospital preparedness.
“In terms of being able to respond to additional patients, I’m confident it’s there and the planning is there to make sure we’re handling this carefully,” he said.
The surge capacity for care at the intensive care level could reach 550 beds, but this would come at the expense of other treatment and patient care.
Middlemore hospital had set up a triage tent as it prepared for an influx of new Covid-19 patients, RNZ reported.
Little didn’t think most people infected with the virus in the future would end up in hospital. “They will be taken care of in the community and the vast majority of them will recover at home.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision this week to leave Wellington to visit areas with low vaccination rates underscored the government’s deep concern.
While rates in most regions have improved dramatically, growing ethnic disparities are reported.
A report from Stuff said that Pacific and Maori healthcare workers “are literally begging patients to get vaccinated.”
He cited Dr Maryann Heather of the Pasifika Medical Association, who said the last part of the unvaccinated population was really hard to reach.
People were still wary and worried about the vaccine, she said.
“Some of us have resorted to begging. My colleagues are really tired. We don’t want to overwhelm the hospital system.”
Heather said disinformation and conspiracy theories were rife and comments from those communities – especially Pacific communities – were that churches did not trust the vaccine. It aggravated people’s fears.
She said some people don’t watch the daily updates or watch the news. They relied instead on social networks. “That’s the problem, people are being bombed and some people are right on top of Covid. But we can’t give up.”
As of Friday morning, the Ministry of Health vaccination figures were as follows: 61% of the eligible population (aged 12 and over) fully vaccinated, 83% had received their first dose and 84% had received their second dose or had been reserved.
The Cabinet will review Auckland’s settings on Monday. He is still at level 3, having been lowered from level 4 on September 22. Since then, restrictions have been relaxed slightly, allowing a limited number of families to mingle outside.
National Party leader Judith Collins is keen to see the advice that prompted the government to relocate the city despite the daily reports of new cases.
At least one commentator said it was a political decision taken to ease the pressure on Aucklanders.
Hipkins said there was no evidence the move resulted in an increase in cases and that people were breaking the Level 4 rules anyway.
When Thursday’s 71 new cases were announced, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said the spread was mainly due to family reunions indoors, against Level 3 rules. He said the same is ‘was produced under level 4.
The announcement on Monday that teachers and healthcare workers should be vaccinated indicated more stick and less carrot on the part of the government as it struggles to raise the rate and protect vulnerable sections of society .
Now that reaching at least 90% is the only way out of blockages, the pressure is mounting on those who are not vaccinated. When vaccine passports become available next month, they could be widely used to restrict entry to gatherings and venues.
The worsening pandemic has overshadowed most other political news this week, but there have been some significant developments.
Treasury accounts for the 2020-21 fiscal year showed the government’s books to be in better shape than expected.
The deficit was $ 4.6 billion compared to May’s forecast of over $ 15 billion, tax revenues were up while spending and debt were down.
“This shows a strong rebound from the first lockdown in 2020 and bodes well for emerging from the current epidemic,” said Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw has released a consultation paper outlining what the government’s emissions reduction plan could look like, due in May next year.
“The sheer complexity of the estimates and projections means that there is significant uncertainty,” RNZ reported.
“The document paints a grim picture, the current and proposed changes will not come close to achieving the original objectives.”
The report described the reaction of climate activists as “a chorus of anger and disappointment.”
The herald reported a new poll showing ACT over 16%, just six points behind National.
The Talbot Mills Research (formerly UMR) poll put Labor at 46 percent, up one point from September, and national at 22 percent, down four points.
Seymour’s rating as preferred prime minister was 16%, the same level of party support. It was seven points ahead of national leader Judith Collins.
Talbot Mills Research is the Labor pollster. The survey reported by the Herald was aimed at corporate clients.
* Peter Wilson is a life member of the Parliament press gallery, 22 years as NZPA political editor and seven years as NZ Newswire parliamentary bureau chief.