Coronavirus: 'Auckland's not getting out of level 3' until mystery cases gone or everyone vaccinated - expert

A prominent epidemiologist says Auckland should expect to stay in level 3 until either one of two things happen - mystery cases of COVID-19 dry up, or everyone gets vaccinated .

Auckland's due to come out of level 3 next week, unless the Government extends the restrictions a bit longer - perhaps more likely than it was at the start of the week, after the massive jump in case numbers on Wednesday. After trending downwards into single-digits, Wednesday saw 45 new cases reported - worryingly, 12 of them unlinked to known cases. 

Experts are now wondering whether the move out of level 4 a week earlier was the right one. 

"I always say 'don't read too much into one day's numbers', but it's those 12 unlinked cases that are quite alarming," Te Pūnaha Matatini disease modeller Shaun Hendy told The AM Show on Thursday morning.

"Unfortunately, this is potentially a signal we may see more cases in the future, but it's very hard to extrapolate from one day's data so we'll certainly be watching what happens over the next couple of days. But it could be that we're starting to see the increase in cases that could occur under alert level 3."

Dr Hendy's modelling of the outbreak has been used by the Government to help it navigate the expected reopening of the country in the coming months as more Kiwis get vaccinated. To date, New Zealand has relied on an elimination strategy - zero-tolerance for any cases - and hasn't ever had to go back up alert levels during an outbreak after bringing them down. While the stated goal of level 3 - like level 4 - is elimination, far more people are at work and interacting with one another - and Dr Hendy thinks perhaps the Government moved from level 4 to 3 too soon. 

"Maybe if we'd stuck it out another week…. we might have got those mystery cases down to zero. We didn't do that, we went for level 3. If this is a sign of level 3 not working in terms of allowing us to eliminate this outbreak, we really have to vaccinate our way out of this. We would have spread through the city by now, so we've got to vaccinate...

"I don't think people have a tolerance for going back to level 4. We have accelerated our vaccination programme so the finish line is in sight. Let's get vaccinated and just close this out." 

New Zealand has fully vaccinated 37 percent of the total population and 44 percent of those aged 12-plus. Earlier modelling by Dr Hendy's team found the herd immunity threshold for the highly infectious Delta variant could be as high as 97 percent

While the current vaccines don't offer a 100 percent guarantee against infection, they do significantly reduce the chances, as well as offering strong protection against serious illness and death. 

Shaun Hendy.
Shaun Hendy. Photo credit: The AM Show

University of Auckland epidemiologist Rod Jackson, appearing on The AM Show with Dr Hendy, said elimination was "always going to be a short-term strategy until everyone could get vaccinated, but what Delta has done is it's made it much shorter-term".

"We're staying in level 3," he said. "Auckland's not getting out of level 3. Auckland's gonna be in level 3 until we don't have mystery cases… Go and get bloody vaccinated. Sorry, this might not sound professional but there is only one game in town, there is only one way out of COVID. The rest of the world have realised this. Come on New Zealand, realise it. We need to all get vaccinated."  

A decision on Auckland's future is expected at the start of next week, at which point the city would have been at level 3 for nearly two weeks.