Race against the virus - elimination 'extremely unlikely now'; Māori 'paying the price'

Author
NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 15 Oct 2021, 7:13AM

Race against the virus - elimination 'extremely unlikely now'; Māori 'paying the price'

Author
NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 15 Oct 2021, 7:13AM

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Elimination of Covid-19 is now extremely unlikely in New Zealand and new strategies - alongside the vaccine - will be needed, says a leading expert. 

And as the Delta outbreak threatens to run rampant through the unvaccinated Māori population, critics are accusing the Government of "giving up" on controlling the virus in Auckland. 

Covid modeller Professor Michael Plank told TVNZ today that elimination of Covid was still a possibility, but now extremely unlikely. "I think it is going to be with us for the foreseeable future," Plank said. 

He said the vaccine was the most important part of getting out of lockdown safely. 

However, evidence showed new strategies were necessary as well. "We're going to need other things alongside the vaccine," he said. 

Some of that included better use of masks, wider testing strategies and better ventilation in buildings - particularly at schools. 

"We're in a race against the virus, there's no doubt about that," he said. 

He encouraged people due to get their second vaccination to head out this weekend for the jab. 

Plank said the more people that we can get vaccinated, the quicker this would "turn the tide" on this outbreak. 

But the higher the number of cases being reported, the higher the hospitalisations would be too, he said. 

"Unfortunately it is and we do have to get used to seeing a larger number of cases than we're used to. The good news is we have the vaccine." 

Plank said more work to help Māori was still needed in terms of getting more people vaccinated in a bid to help save more Māori from getting the virus and ending up in hospital. 

Plank said authorities should really be prioritising the health of those vulnerable communities - in Māori and Pasifika. 

"That inequity needs to be at the forefront of our decision making." 

Of Thursday's 71 cases - all in Auckland - 37 were Māori. 

In 15 of the past 16 days Māori have made up the majority of cases, but this was the first day the figure had crept over 50 per cent. 

The outbreak was also looking increasingly out of control, with now 102 unlinked cases over the past fortnight - five times the number from when level 3 restrictions were loosened and over 10 times the number from when Auckland moved out of level 4 on September 22. 

Total active cases now totalled 599, tripling in the past three weeks, along with increasing numbers of sub-clusters and those who had been infectious while in the community. 

"We've passed the threshold, and it's Māori who are paying the price," health analyst Dr Rawiri Taonui said. 

Director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay said on Thursday, given current tracking, daily case numbers could double in a week, while conceding the contact tracing system would reach its limits at about "170 to 180" cases a day. 

With a current hospitalisation rate of 10 per cent - double the rate pre-Delta - the health system could too rapidly come under pressure. 

"And on current projections majority of those impacted will be Māori," Taonui said. 

The outbreak is spreading predominantly through the unvaccinated, who disproportionately are Māori. 

Currently 40 per cent of Māori are fully vaccinated, compared to the overall rate of 60.5 per cent. 

The lower rates are largely due to the rollout implicitly prioritising European/Other and Asian ethnicity with its focus on older age groups and essential workers at earlier stages. 

This is despite research showing Māori were more likely to catch and die from the virus. 

The rates could be even worse too, with the Ministry of Health dataset known to undercount Māori, with a 12 per cent population difference to the Census. 

Since the rollout opened to younger age groups Māori rates have been catching up slowly, and over the past month the number of Māori vaccinations has increased 23 per cent, compared to 14 per cent for Pākehā/Other. 

But the move to lighten restrictions has come too soon, Taonui said, particularly with and about 25 per cent of the Māori population aged under 12, compared to 16 per cent of the general population, and still ineligible to be vaccinated. 

"This is a recipe for a runaway in the Māori community." 

Taonui urged the Government to reconsider level 4 restrictions. 

"We need level 4 until those vaccination rates can catch up." 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson was asked about imposing a short, sharp lockdown - particularly given the high number of Māori cases - but he said it wasn't something they were currently looking at. 

The outbreak could still be controlled at alert level 3, he said, with current non-compliance the biggest driver of case spread. 

It was also no longer just a couple of clusters, it was affecting all of Auckland, he said. 

The reproduction rate was now around 1.2 and 1.3 which meant cases would rise, but if cases did head towards the "triple-digit mark" he assured they could be managed. 

The Government has been repeatedly asked for data to back up claims Auckland was becoming too non-compliant for level 4, but it has refused to release it. 

Taonui said he doesn't believe Auckland couldn't have handled longer at level 4, and the trends showed that it had been working. 

"It looks like their decision to abandon level 4 was based on an overreading of non-compliance, and Māori are paying the price." 

Covid modeller Michael Plank also said the Government needed to urgently look at imposing a level 4 lockdown in Auckland to contain the ever-increasing rise in Covid cases. 

If it didn't people could expect up to 150 cases a day as early as November. 

National Party Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said the Government had been too focused on elimination, and now it had given up that strategy in Auckland it had no plan to control the virus. 

"The Government has given up the fight." 

He said there had been a lack of planning for the Delta outbreak, including scaling up ICU capacity and utilising rapid antigen testing, which had just been approved on Thursday. 

Bishop said home isolation for some Covid cases, also announced on Thursday, to free up MIQ capacity was a good move. 

He agreed vaccinating was now the way out of the outbreak but said along with encouragement there needed to be a vaccination target set. The National Party has previously suggested 85 per cent of the eligible population. 

"Aucklanders need to know that if they are fully vaccinated, there will be some reward." 

Act Party leader David Seymour also called for a date to be set for Auckland to open up, suggesting December 1. 

"By that time everyone will have had a chance to be vaccinated," he said. 

Meanwhile, a coalition of Māori health organisations in Auckland is warning many Maori will die unless the Government returns to a Covid-19 elimination strategy. 

They say recent moves to relax restrictions while the number of cases among Māori were rising and the vaccination rate was still low painted a picture of Māori as "acceptable collateral damage". 

The coalition of Hāpai Te Hauora, Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust, Te Hā Oranga and Raukura Hauora o Tainui said the elimination strategy had acted as protective korowai while the vaccination programme caught up, but it had now been dropped. 

"That will no doubt result in loss of lives, with Māori being a major casualty," they said in a statement. 

On Monday Te Pāti Māori called for Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland, to be put back into level 4, and level 3 for the rest of the North Island, until eligible Māori were 95 per cent vaccinated. 

"Failure to do so is committing our people to death by Covid," co-leader Rawiri Waititi said. 

"The reality is that the Government has failed to deliver to Māori."