An apparent plateauing in community cases of Covid-19 could indicate that New Zealand’s outbreak is teetering on the edge of peak cases, experts say, as the government prepares to make an announcement over Auckland and Northland’s lockdown and essential workplaces settings.
A total of 511 New Zealanders have so far been infected in the outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant, first identified in the community on 17 August. The number needing treatment in hospital rose overnight on Sunday from 25 to 34.
The country was put into a level 4 lockdown – the highest setting – after the first case emerged. From midnight Tuesday, regions south of Auckland will downgrade a level but Auckland, where the majority of cases have been, and Northland will have to wait until Monday afternoon to hear if their lockdown will be extended.
The highest single day for cases in the current outbreak was on Sunday, with 83 reported. There were 82 new cases on Saturday.
Speaking to RNZ on Monday morning, Covid-19 modeller Michael Plank said it appears the case-numbers are starting to plateau and the numbers were roughly consistent with modelling projections.
“The numbers bounce around from day-to-day and I mean it’s certainly looking like it is taking a bit longer to get this outbreak under control than we’ve seen with previous outbreaks,” he said.
“That’s consistent with what we know about the Delta variant tending to infect everyone in a household. So we expect to see this sort of period with high household transmission.
“But the week ahead really is the crunch week in terms of seeing whether the numbers start to come down.”
Plank said there was still a big question as to how long the tail of the outbreak would be.
“If the lockdown does prove to be really effective at stopping transmission between bubbles, it’s possible we could see case numbers down to about 10 a day within the sort of latter part of September, and you know, if we can get down to that level, we’ll be in a really good position to eliminate the outbreak.”
On Sunday, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said there had been a small number of workplaces operating under level 4 that had seen transmission within staff – four to date.
“If we need to tighten up our restrictions further we will,” Ardern said.
“This may not be a problem with the rules, say, on the factory floor, but what is happening perhaps before and after shifts or even during break times? We are looking at this in more detail.”
Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said the worksite transmission was a worry, because despite the sites not being customer-facing, a spread of infection between staff could result in satellite outbreaks.
When the government talks of tightening restrictions, they are likely talking about preventing certain worksites from operating, or adding processes to stop transmission within those workplaces, Wiles said.
“The definition of ‘essential’ was really strict back in level 4 last time and it seems like there has been a bit of an expansion, so we have more places open,” she said.
Wiles offered the example of someone ordering boutique chocolate for delivery.
“Yes technically chocolate is a food, but is it really essential? We have to remember that things have changed with Delta. We can have a few weeks without chocolate, as hard as that might be.”
In order for Auckland and Northland to drop down levels, there would have to be a decline in cases and an assurance that the virus was not spreading on worksites, Wiles said.
Moving the rest of the country, south of Auckland, down just one level to level 3 from Wednesday was prudent, due to the risk of essential workers carrying the virus between regions, Wiles said.
“If the South Island moves down levels, then we have to ensure outbreaks don’t get seeded there – they will then spark off faster because there is more movement and less restriction.”
If the country eased restrictions too soon, then future lockdowns could end up being longer, Wiles warned.
“We’ve got a system that was set up when [the pandemic] started and it has worked really well at the beginning and now we’re seeing how well it works against the virus that has evolved. Just because this is going to be harder, is no reason to throw in the towel and say ‘we give up’ because the alternative is far too awful to think about.”
She added that while some pundits, opposition politicians and business leaders were criticising the lockdown restrictions, the general public was on board with the strategy.
Ardern will update the nation on the lockdown decisions for Auckland and Northland on Monday afternoon.