Coronavirus: Expert concerned Māori, Pasifika at risk due to low vaccination rates

With the arrival of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in New Zealand, a public health expert is becoming increasingly concerned not enough Māori and Pacific people have been vaccinated. 

So far there have been nine confirmed cases in the latest outbreak, though that number is expected to rise rapidly in the next few days. The list of locations of potential exposure across Auckland and Coromandel is in the dozens, many large venues with hundreds of people, and the source of the outbreak hasn't been found. 

Collin Tukuitonga, associate dean Pacific and associate professor of public health at the University of Auckland told Newshub Māori and Pasifika are particularly at risk from Delta. In typical circumstances each infected person goes on to infect between six and nine others on average. Lockdowns help bring that number down, but many Māori and Pasifika work in essential services and in overcrowded housing. 

"We've known for many years Māori and Pacific folk are at increased risk, given the socio-economic conditions - particularly crowded housing... and there's much more higher prevalence of underlying conditions like diabetes, heart disease, asthma and so on, which puts people at increased risk of infection," Dr Tukuitonga told Newshub.

The Government's first mass vaccination event held at the end of July was held in Manukau, and initially targeted at locals - but there was little uptake, so invitations ended up going out to people across the whole city. 

Around 16,000 people got their first doses of the vaccine at the event, which after a bumpy first morning was ultimately hailed for its efficiency. But Dr Tukuitonga says the wrong people ended up getting most of the jabs.

"I thought the big mass vaccination event in Manukau was really ineffective. We had about 1000 Pacific people and just over 1000 Māori injected out of the 16,000. 

"The problem with that is you make worse the inequities that we've seen - in other words, we were vaccinating lower-priority, lower-risk people ahead of Māori and Pacific people. 

"That would be my single biggest disappointment - we should have been much further ahead with vaccinating Māori and Pacific people, and indeed generally I agree with people who say that we should be much further ahead overall, but particularly for Māori and Pasifika people." 

Ministry of Health data shows just 9 percent of Kiwis who've had their second doses are Māori, despite Māori making up more than 16 percent of the population (though Māori do have a younger population than Pakeha, and under-16s haven't been approved to receive the vaccine yet). Pasifika are also lagging, making up 6.2 percent of second doses behind their 7.4 percent share of the population (but again, with the same caveat they are typically younger than Pakeha). 

Overseas where there have been widespread outbreaks, minority groups have regularly been among the hardest-hit.

Elder Māori and Pasifika were included in the second group for the vaccine rollout, especially if they were in the Counties-Manukau area. But some of those who ended up getting jabs at the mass event were in groups three and even four. 

Aside from the elderly and their carers, Māori and Pasifika weren't given any special treatment in the vaccine rollout. 

"We have been advocating for some weeks now that a targeted approach to Pacific people is needed - involve Pacific leaders, Pacific church leaders, community groups... and to make the process a lot simpler," said Dr Tukuitonga.

"We're not actually vaccinating the priority groups who are at higher risk, which puts the rest of the community at risk. More effort, more options, more community engagement, better information flow and more readily available vaccination centres are what's needed." 

Dr Tukuitonga said he backed the level 4 restrictions introduced earlier this week.

"When vaccination resumes again, I encourage people - particularly Māori and Pacific folk - to get vaccinated." 

Some vaccination locations reopened on Thursday, after spending a short time making sure they could operate safely under level 4 protocols.