Coronavirus: 'Scared' countries are rushing to get vaccines, NZ should too - epidemiologist Rod Jackson

New Zealand has the "incredible luxury" of seeing how reopening plans go overseas, an epidemiologist has claimed, giving us a better idea of what level of vaccination coverage will be needed to avoid mass death.

While we've enjoyed comparatively greater freedoms and far fewer deaths than most during the pandemic thanks to a strict zero-COVID strategy, the highly infectious Delta variant is much harder to get rid of than previous strains. A number of countries similar in size and wealth to New Zealand have either recently reopened or are planning to in the near future - including Denmark, Norway and Ireland. 

"There is one big, big difference between us and all of those countries - they've had a lot more cases and a lot more deaths," Rod Jackson of the University of Auckland told The AM Show on Thursday. 

"Denmark has had 100 times more deaths from COVID than New Zealand, Ireland's had 200 times as many. Norway, they've done OK - they've had 800 deaths." 

Like New Zealand, all three of those countries have populations between 5 and 6 million. Norway's lost 819 people to COVID-19, Denmark 2614 and Ireland 5155. New Zealand has had just 27 deaths. 

Our vaccine rollout started later and slower than those three. Norway has 81 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated, Denmark is also above 80 percent and our Irish friends have managed a stunning 90 percent. After a late start we're on just 36 percent, but the pace has picked up since Delta arrived - and Dr Jackson thinks he knows why. 

"When I was talking to my colleagues in Ireland and I said, 'Why have you got such high vaccination rates? We need to learn from you,' [they said they're] scared shitless. They've just had so many deaths," said Dr Jackson, clarifying "scared shitless" is "an epidemiological term".

Even then, Ireland is taking it easy opening up - office workers will go back next week, the Irish Times reports, with most restrictions not set to come off until October 22 - and only if the virus' spread is under control or falling. Even at 90 percent coverage of those eligible, there's still fear Delta could overwhelm the health system - and they have more ICU beds per capita than New Zealand too

"No health system can cope with a Delta outbreak," said Dr Jackson. "I think this is something people forget about. They talk about the death rate, and there is a lot of controversy about what it is, but if you've got a spread like you get with Delta - it's basically a superspreading virus, you don't even need a superspreading setting, it's a superspreading virus - no system can cope with an outbreak of Delta."

While the vaccines aren't as good at preventing transmission of Delta as they were previous strains, they still help, and they dramatically reduce the chance you'll get seriously ill.

Rod Jackson.
Rod Jackson. Photo credit: The AM Show

The 'magic number'

There have been calls for the Government to set a vaccination target at which point we can stop using lockdowns. Prime Minister Ardern earlier this week said she wouldn't set a target because no matter the nationwide level, there would be pockets of lower coverage still vulnerable to an outbreak. Māori have also lagged behind in the vaccine rollout, despite being more at risk

"I've said many times before, we have no intention of continuing to lose lockdowns in the long-term - we just can't keep doing that to people," Ardern told The AM Show on Tuesday. "That strategy has worked really well for us, but going forward the way that we can stop using lockdowns is to make sure that everyone is vaccinated. 

"We used them in the past because we didn't have that tool. Now we have vaccines."

AM Show host Ryan Bridge asked Dr Jackson what level of coverage he would consider the "magic number". 

"Ninety five percent," he replied, echoing the findings of a modeling study done earlier this year which suggested 97 percent coverage of eligible people would be needed. The reason is the Delta strain is so infectious, and about a million Kiwis can't presently get the vaccine - they're under 12 or can't get it for genuine health reasons. 

Kiwis might also be less willing to tolerate deaths as a tradeoff for opening up than people in Norway, Denmark and Ireland, Dr Jackson said, because we're used to not having any at all. 

Health Minister Andrew Little on Thursday said the Ministry of Health was doing modelling to see how bad outbreaks would be at different vaccination levels. 

'No oxygen' for anti-vaxxers

Some Kiwis have said they probably or definitely won't get the vaccine, despite its efficacy and safety. Dr Jackson said most of them are just "hesitant", rather than being anti-vaccination. 

"Our job over the next few months is to move those people from vaccine hesitant to being vaccinated. I think most New Zealanders are reasonable. The anti-vaxxers, they really are quite a small group. They're fringe. No oxygen, they don't deserve any oxygen."

There appears to be a large crossover between groups of anti-vaccination activists and those who have protested against the lockdowns - groups like Voices for Freedom and followers of conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika have spread misinformation about vaccines while at the same time also condemning the lockdowns.

"There's only two ways to deal with Delta - lockdowns and vaccinations," said Dr Jackson. "My message to New Zealanders is if you hate lockdowns, get a shot. If you really hate lockdowns, get two."