Coronavirus: New Zealand could see thousands of deaths once borders open if vaccination rates don't increase - Michael Plank

A COVID-19 modeller is warning New Zealand could see thousands of deaths if we don't get vaccination rates up much higher.

University of Canterbury Professor Michael Plank warns that when our borders open to friends, whanau and workers, they will also open to COVID - and vastly more than the 14 cases reported on Wednesday.

"If we were to open up with 70 to 80 percent of the eligible population vaccinated we'd still be at risk of tens of thousands of people needing hospital treatment and potentially thousands of deaths," he tells Newshub.

It comes as Health Minister Andrew Little signalled the country is preparing to change tack in how we handle COVID-19, shifting from relying on lockdowns to relying on the health system.

Little says we need to make sure the health system is capable of coping if there is an outbreak once we open up the borders. He's expecting a specific strategy from the Ministry of Health in the next three to four weeks.

"We know that restrictions are going to come off, they have to come off, we want to open the borders, we want people to start gathering in decent numbers," Little told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"But we can only do that when the vaccination rates are high."

Currently, just 36 percent of the eligible population - those over 12 years old - are fully vaccinated.

Seventy percent have had one dose, but rates for Māori, those in Northland and the under 40s are much lower.

"For those under the age of 40, we've got a lot of work to do there," says COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

But with an extra 250,000 extra doses from Denmark landing this afternoon he says "there's no holding us back".

Specialist emergency physician and president of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM), Dr John Bonning, says New Zealand's hospitals aren't ready for an influx of COVID patients. 

"We cannot open just yet - we can't cope right now. We just see in New South Wales how, if you open up too early and too much COVID comes in, you become swamped."

He concedes we will need to move from elimination to mitigation, but said we're not at that point yet.

So that hospitals can cope, Dr Bonning says they'll need more dedicated COVID wards, negative pressure rooms, ICU beds and nurses - and the new strategy will include 'hospital at home' where many patients are managed remotely in their homes.

"The way to avoid hospitalisations is to maximise vaccinations," Little says.

The Government's never put a figure on it but the Health Minister did give a clue on Wednesday about the vaccination goal.

"There's a number of figures being used but 80 percent is one figure," Little says.

Plank says 80 percent is a minimum if we want to prevent serious illness and deaths.

"Even in the 80s it would still be quite high, so I think we really need to try and get into the 90s when those numbers start to become more manageable."

Dr Bonning says getting vaccinated means less severe illness.

"All the studies from overseas show the unvaccinated population are four-and-a-half to five times more likely to catch COVID, 10 times more likely to be hospitalised and 11 times more likely to die from COVID," he says.

"You need to get vaccinated, not only for your own sake but the sake of your whanau, your communities and your hospital system."