Covid 19 Delta outbreak: The handful of cases likely to extend current alert level settings for everyone

ANALYSIS:

Anyone in New Zealand hoping for a change in alert levels this week is likely to be disappointed.

That goes for Aucklanders as well as Southerners.

The four cases who visited Middlemore Hospital recently have changed the outlook from last week, when modelling indicated a slim chance of no more spread outside of people’s bubblesby this week.

There are plenty of reasons to think that Aucklanders are slowly but surely extinguishing the last embers of the outbreak.

But there are still enough embers to be in danger of flaring up into something much greater.

Those embers are also well spread: Mt Eden, Mangere, Massey, Favona, Papatoetoe, Otara and Manurewa.

Yesterday there were still 34 mystery cases, and while many of them are expected to be resolved, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there remains a “handful” – including those who visited Middlemore, some of whom were asymptomatic – of sufficient concern.

Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield revealed 16 groups of interest; seven were considered to be contained, while future cases in six of them were expected to already be in isolation.

The “handful” seems to be confined to the three remaining groups, where community transmission is still suspected.

One of the groups has 51 cases and last had a case on September 8, which showed it was “clearly slowing down”, Bloomfield said.

One has 28 cases and is a group of households in Mangere and Manurewa; the last case was from September 10. Ardern said this group has a number of close contacts, so more cases are expected.

And one has 164 cases, which are broadly people who caught the virus from those connected to the church service in Mangere a month ago; the last cases were also from September 10. Some in this group caught the virus in a workplace.

“We’re picking up mystery cases and eventually sometimes linking them to these [three groups],” Ardern said.

“That just gives us a bit of a sense that we may not have completely got that ring around it.”

The number of cases who were potentially infectious in the community also remains stubbornly above zero: 10 on Saturday, eight on Friday, one on Thursday, six on Wednesday, and five on Tuesday.

The other concern is the number of very close contacts – including those who share households or workplaces with known cases – who are yet to have a day 12 test.

There are about 350 such cases, and with an infection rate of 16 per cent for this group of contacts, this would translate to about 50 more cases to come through.

All this adds up to “a bit of anxiety”, Ardern said.

It’s not impossible that Bloomfield’s advice today will be that these cases are of low enough risk that they can be contained by level 3.

It’s much more likely that his advice will be that Auckland continues to track well, but it needs to hold the level 4 line for at least another week.

Ardern has also said there might only be one chance to eliminate this outbreak, so she will want to be very confident before moving Auckland to level 3.

The harder question is whether the rest of the country can go to level 1.

There appears to be a strong case to do so, with no sign of any community cases outside Auckland for weeks. For the South Island, it’s been ten months.

But there’s still a risk of someone taking the virus from Auckland to another part of the country, with more than 3000 essential workers who can travel in and out of Auckland.

There are measures to minimise this risk, including the seven-day testing regime for workers crossing the boundary, and vaccination priority for essential workers including those at Fonterra and Mainfreight.

But the boundary won’t stop everyone who should be stopped, the testing regime is no guarantee of catching everyone with the virus, and the vaccine – while hugely beneficial – isn’t 100 per cent effective.

And then there are those who just break the rules, like the Auckland couple accused of using their essential-worker credentials to drive to Hamilton and then fly to their holiday home in Wanaka.

Remember that it was at level 1 when, in this outbreak, one undetected case turned into more than 900 cases in less than 10 days.

Ardern stressed decisions won’t be made until ministers hear the latest advice today.

But she suggested there was enough risk in Auckland to warrant keeping level 2 in the rest of the country, pointing to cases turning up in Queensland from New South Wales.

“So long as you have an outbreak in any part of the country, there exists a risk that it could spread. No boundary is ironclad.”

Ardern will also be mindful of how close Aucklanders might be to breaking point.

Public support for the current restrictions appears to be holding up well, but the last thing anyone needs is for Aucklanders – including some of the half a million who are fully vaccinated – to flock to the beaches, as thousands did in Sydney this weekend.

Consideration of breaking point also applies to South Islanders. Will southerners stick to level 2 rules if they believed they should be in level 1?

It’s a fine line for Ardern to walk, encouraging Aucklanders to remain diligently on the elimination pathway, while maintaining the social cohesion all around the country on which the whole strategy succeeds or collapses.

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