Coronavirus: Kiwis 'haven't seen how devastating this pandemic is' expert says, urges vaccination

A leading expert in infectious disease fears Kiwis have been lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to COVID-19, because we haven't had the waves of death and illness seen in most other countries. 

New Zealand hasn't had any community transmission of the disease in more than five months, but overseas about 10,000 people are dying every day - and they're just the cases reported by officials, with the true toll likely to be much higher.

New Zealand's last death was in February, bringing the total in the pandemic to just 26. But since then the highly infectious Delta variant has become dominant worldwide, with countries that had handled previous strains of the virus well now struggling - including Australia.

"I think in some ways in New Zealand we haven't seen how devastating this pandemic is," University of Otago epidemiologist Michal Baker told The AM Show on Thursday. "Hopefully people understand that."

The number of Kiwis using the COVID Tracer app remains stubbornly low however, and around half of public transport users in Auckland aren't following mandatory rules to wear masks, despite public transport being a key vector in the spread of the virus here last year, and overseas.

Dr Baker's colleague Nick Wilson earlier this week said a single case of Delta in New Zealand could prompt a level 4 lockdown. Dr Baker said that was a possibility, but we might not need it if contact tracers can get ahead of the outbreak.

"If we saw a single case in an airport worker or even in their family or immediate contacts, and the contact tracing showed that it had been well-contained, we might be able to rely on our contact tracing system, which is working very well. 

"But if we saw cases in the community and we didn't know where they had come from, then we would need a very intense lockdown. That's the problem in NSW - they didn't lock down fast enough. There's a very strong message there. So it isn't automatic lockdown - it is, as always, look at the pattern of cases."

The Delta variant is able to be caught and spread by vaccinated people, making herd immunity at this stage unlikely. 

"One thing they're showing overseas is they're still very effective at preventing serious illness and death, and that's why everyone in New Zealand should get vaccinated as soon as they can," said Dr Baker. 

He's confident we can get widespread immunity coverage which will reduce the number of deaths when we do open the borders, even if no herd immunity is reached. 

"The survey data shows people are keen to get vaccinated in New Zealand - there's quite a small minority now who say they won't get vaccinated. Unfortunately we have a tiny and very vocal group of anti-vaxxers who just put out rubbish."

And if the virus does get out, acting fast will prevent it reaching those who can't be vaccinated for genuine reasons, such as children and those with medical conditions.

"The core message is the elimination approach is our direction for the foreseeable future. It's delivered very good results for New Zealand. The other message is vaccinate… if you have high vaccine coverage, it gives us a lot more protection if we get an outbreak."

Dr Baker's comments come the day after the Government released the expert advice it had received on the future of the response to the pandemic.