Coronavirus: Kiwis urged not to spurn chance to get vaccinated with Delta 'only a plane flight away'

Young people in two minds about getting vaccinated against COVID-19 need to understand the threat posed by the Delta variant, an expert says.

Health officials struggled to fill slots at the country's first mass vaccination event, to be held at the Vodafone Events Centre in Manukau this weekend. Places were initially offered to students of the nearby Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) and their families, but less than a quarter responded. Another 140,000 Aucklanders were offered places before all 16,000 slots were filled. 

"There's a range of reasons why the MIT event didn't initially go as well as people expected," NIkki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"What local health services are looking for are services that work for communities. I can see from my end a huge amount of general practices now are engaged, opening up services in the next few weeks, pharmacies, other local services, different ways of supporting communities to get vaccinated, Maori services, Pasifika services, in ways that we've never done before. 

"Some will work effectively, some of them won't work so well to start with, some of them are a trial - does this service work for the community? If not, try something else." 

Many of those getting their jabs this weekend will be in group 4 - the least at risk - even though 85 percent of group 3 are yet to get theirs. Dr Turner doesn't see this as a problem. 

"I think the focus for us now is to just get out and vaccinate as fast as we can and as safely as we can, as many people as possible. We need to continue to vaccinate group 3 alongside broadening. 

"The difference now is we have a good supply of vaccine, and should continue to have a good supply of vaccine. We're opening up more vaccination services around the country, local services are putting in huge amounts of effort to grow… so let's see how we go over the next month or two. I look forward to seeing a real surge now in coverage."

Nikki Turner.
Nikki Turner. Photo credit: The AM Show

Once dubbed the 'Boomer remover', COVID-19 has undergone numerous mutations since it emerged from China in early 2020. The older you were, the more likely you were to fall sick or die. But there is concern the current dominant variant, Delta, isn't as picky when it comes to who it hits hard - especially since many countries have opted to vaccinate the elderly first. 

"People have been reluctant to call this out, but I think it’s now very clear that Delta is different to anything we have seen so far," Tony Cunningham, infectious diseases physician at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research in Sydney, told the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday. "We've got a virus which is clearly causing serious disease in younger people and it’s clearly more virulent." 

New South Wales is struggling to contain an outbreak of the Delta variant. Neighbouring Victoria managed to quash its smaller outbreak, which was spread by young people - mostly under 40 - who weren't vaccinated, experts said.  

The UK, which is in the midst of a third wave of COVID-19, is seeing six times as many people aged between 16 and 24 infected than 50- to 69-year-olds, data reported by the Guardian shows. While mortality for the young remains lower than for the elderly, there are fears many will end up suffering from long COVID.

"I think there's some truth in that, particularly in young people - we've seen internationally there's lower coverage for young people," said Dr Turner. "The Delta variant really shifts the argument; New Zealand is so fortunate not to have this NSW Delta variant... We do need to raise the stakes and all be aware that we have to move on and get our population as protected as quickly as we can - it's really only a plane flight away."