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New Zealand reports record Covid cases as experts sound warning over health system

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Reuters

New Zealand has hit its highest daily case number since the pandemic began. 94 new Covid-19 infections announced on Tuesday, as experts warned that cases would probably keep rising, and sustained high numbers could quickly push the health system to capacity.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said the rise in Covid cases was “incredibly hard,” and urged people to get vaccinated and to continue following the rules.

“We’re not powerless, we do have the ability to help keep cases as low as we can,” she said.

Related: Jacinda Ardern facing biggest challenge yet as New Zealand switches to Covid suppression

Case numbers in New Zealand are expected to continue to rise in the coming weeks. “We always know that a single day is just a point on a graph on a trend curve,” said epidemiologist prof Michael Baker. “But taken with the other points [we’ve seen], we’re going to be in three digits soon - if not tomorrow then this week, probably.”

Health officials have so far been unable to link more than half of the cases announced on Tuesday to existing infections. The concerning rise in unlinked cases could indicate further, undetected spread in the community. Ardern said the outbreak had spread across the city, and there were now cases in 124 Auckland suburbs.

“There’s not much margin for error at the moment, in terms of the race between our vaccination program and the outbreak,” said Shaun Hendy, an epidemiologist and modeler for Te Pūnaha Matatini, on whom the government has previously relied for outbreak modeling. “It could go either way at this stage. If we don’t see numbers starting to stabilize or pull down in a couple of weeks, it’s likely that we’re looking at a much longer outbreak.”

As the outbreak grew, public health interventions like testing, tracing and isolating cases would start to falter, Hendy said. New Zealand’s contact tracing capacity was already approaching its limits. “We’re seeing more and more unlinked cases, which is telling us that the virus is well ahead of our contact tracers at the moment,” he said.

“One of the big concerns is that our track, trace and isolate [strategy] will stop making an impact, and we’ll see that virus really strip ahead of our vaccination program.”

“Your response actually gets worse as case numbers grow. You’re giving the virus an extra edge, once the outbreak gets large. In that case, the risk of it basically beating our vaccine rollout is quite high.”

The outbreak is increasingly hitting young people, with 12 people in hospital under the age of 39. The highest number of new cases on Tuesday came from the youngest age groups – those aged under 39 – which also have the lowest vaccination rates.

Ardern said vaccination efforts would increasingly have to focus on young people who “don’t think it is real, or that it affects them yet.” Because New Zealand opted to roll out population-wide vaccination by age band, most of those young people have had far less time to get vaccinated. Those aged 12 and up only became eligible to get a vaccine on 1 September.

Since the Delta strain arrived in New Zealand, it has been ripping through Māori and Pacific communities. Despite making up just 16.5% of the overall population, Māori have made up almost half, or 46% of cases over the last 2 weeks. Of Tuesday’s cases, 39% are Māori and 14% are Pasifika. Toward the beginning of the outbreak it was concentrated in Pacific communities, who made up 60-70% of cases.

Māori affairs minister Peeni Henare urged Māori to get vaccinated. ​ “I say to the Māori people, Covid-19 is on the doorstep of your houses. Do not let it enter,” Henare said. “The best course of protection still remains for us to vaccinate our people.”

Related: New Zealand’s weird and wonderful vaccine rollout

The country is racing to increase vaccination numbers as the outbreak grows. As of Tuesday, 83% of the eligible (those aged 12 and up) population have had at least one dose, or 70% of the full population. 65% of the eligible population have been fully vaccinated with both doses, or 55% of the full population.

Vaccination rates among Māori and Pacific communities, particularly young people, were still lagging behind the broader population.

As case numbers rise, so too were the number of people hospitalised with the illness: 38 people were in hospital with Covid-19, and five people were in intensive care.

Hendy said that if cases rose slightly and then sustained triple digits, modelling showed the health system would quickly come under pressure.

New Zealand’s outbreak so far had had an unusually high hospitalisation rate, of around 10%. If that endured, emergency and ICU capacity could start to buckle. “It really wouldn’t take an awful lot more. A sustained rise in cases, a couple of weeks of triple digits with this first kind of hospitalization rate… [and] we’ll be under considerable strain in the healthcare system,” he said.

Baker said that the government’s pathway forward needed to be based not just on vaccine targets, but on giving a more precise idea of when the health system would reach saturation, and what measures would be required to prevent that.

Of Tuesday’s cases, 87 were in Auckland and seven were in Waikato. Both regions remain in a level 3 lockdown. The government has signaled it will release plans for those cities’ pathway forward on Friday, including a new pandemic management plan as cases rise.

The Ministry of Health said in a release: “Public health staff are continuing to urge anyone in Auckland to, please, get a test if they have symptoms of Covid-19, regardless of which suburb they live in. There are increased cases across the region, so everyone needs to remain vigilant.”

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