Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: Experts say elimination just weeks away but Auckland set for longer lockdown

Auckland – and New Zealand – are on a knife-edge between a prolonged or yo-yoing level 4 lockdown, and a return down the alert level scale.

There is good news – elimination is in sight, with modellers agreeing the city will get to the magic number “0” within a couple of weeks, and just 11 new cases were announced on Friday.

But the bad news is that every unlinked case could suggest hidden chains of transmission. All eyes have now turned to the two cases who have recently tested positive after presenting themselves at Middlemore Hospital with unconnected symptoms.

Te P┼źnaha Matatini Covid-19 modeller Shaun Hendy described the overall numbers as tracking well.

“Assuming everything else stays the same we will eliminate sometime in the next couple of weeks,” Hendy said.

But he was concerned by recent incidents of patients presenting at Middlemore Hospital and later testing positive for Covid-19.

“The concerning ones are the hospital presentations – the two hospital cases. What would really assure me would be if there are strong epidemiological links in those cases,” he said.

A decision on alert levels for both Auckland and the rest of the country will be made on Monday.

On Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said if there happened to be a large number of mystery cases, that could weigh on any alert level decision.

However, he balanced this by saying that if testing was high and case numbers continued to come down, there was some reassurance there were no undetected chains of transmission.

Auckland could move to level 3, while the big question for the rest of the country is whether it could be at level 1, should Auckland remain at level 4.

Hendy was pegging that Auckland will stay at alert level 4 for slightly longer.

“At this stage we are probably not popping out on Wednesday morning into level 3,” Hendy said, “but it may not be that much further”.

Fellow modeller Rodney Jones said that more time at level 4 was likely to avoid yo-yoing up and down the alert level scale.

“It’s kind of a trade-off. You can extend this lockdown further if you come out a bit early you risk going into another moderately long lockdown,” Jones said.

The daily case numbers from the pandemic are sending mixed signals.

Case numbers are falling, but they might not be falling fast enough to avoid an extension to Auckland’s level 4 lockdown, which is on track to be the longest any part of New Zealand has been under such restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic.

The last time the country moved from level 4 to level 3 – in April last year – it was preceded by nearly a week of single-digit case numbers. Those cases were clearly linked.

This time, new daily cases are still in the double digits.

The country’s response is more sophisticated than it was a year ago. The number that keeps officials up at night isn’t the number of new daily cases, but the number of cases that cannot be linked to the current outbreak.

Unlinked cases suggest the possibility of wider spreading of the virus, which could lead to new clusters if restrictions are lifted.

The country still has a high number of cases that haven’t been epidemiologically linked to other cases in the outbreak.

This number has actually grown over the week. On Tuesday, the number of unlinked cases stood at 24, but by Friday it stood at 29, having cracked 30 the day before.

Hendy said the absolute number of unlinked cases was not necessarily the most important number, as often there was a lag between cases being reported and those cases being linked.

Each day this week a handful of unlinked cases have been recorded but the total number of unlinked cases has risen only slightly, indicating that links are eventually being found – it is just difficult. Bloomfield announced on Friday, for example, that all of the 13 cases announced the previous day had been epidemiologically linked.

“It’s always hard to interpret those unlinked cases – they will report things in the 1pm briefing that have come in that morning so the work won’t necessarily have been done to link them,” Hendy said.

The problem is Delta is so transmissible, it appears that anything less than the tightest restrictions is ineffective.

Jones said that even a single case could lead to an outbreak.

“This all began from one limo driver in Sydney that sent Australasia to hell,” Jones said.

“The concern has to be that there’s a background of infections that we’re not getting on top of.”

Robertson responded to concerns that the new alert level 2 restrictions were hurtingbusinesses, announcing another round of the business resurgence payment for struggling businesses.

Businesses who see a 40 per cent fall in revenue can apply for a $1500 payment plus $400 for each employee, up to a limit of 50.

The payment had been designed as a one-off, but Robertson yesterday said

further rounds of it will be made available until all regions of the country are at alert level 1 for a month.

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