Coronavirus: Top epidemiologist calls for 'harm reduction approach' to marginalised groups in COVID-19 response

A leading epidemiologist is calling for a 'rapid review' of our COVID-19 tactics, saying we need to focus on the remaining lines of transmission among marginalised groups. 

The outbreak's stubbornly refusing to go away with 16 new cases, up from Friday's nine. That comes as Aucklanders appeared to be bursting bubbles and letting their masks slip during the first weekend of level 3. But there is one positive: the vaccine drive, with Pasifika people turning up in droves for their shots.

The call went out on social media, and on Saturday, all of our Pasifika communities answered. 

"Making all our people that turn up here welcome with our Cook Islands spirit, our dance, our dress," says Dr Aumea Herman, the Cook Islands event clinical lead.

Maliaga Erick, the Niue event matua, says church members and youth were all coming out. 

"This is the beauty of it, to say 'come on Niue! Niuekimua! Let's journey together!'"

Samoan, Cook Island, and Niuean drive-throughs were set up late this week with the three-day vaccination-drives part of a huge push to get Pacific-Aucklanders involved through Pacific-led events.

Even those who were initially hesitant turned up. 

"We have those who are anti-vaccine turn up and they were very blunt and said 'I'm an anti-vaccine, I'm here to get my vaccine' and that was awesome!" says Erick.

But while the vibe was high in south Auckland, there is concern about Saturday's leap back into double-digit-cases. Large groups of Aucklanders seemed very relaxed about distancing, with many taking to Mission Bay, few with masks.

"We've been on this plateau now for over two weeks of low numbers of cases but we're not seeing this virus go away," says Prof Baker. 

On Friday, a person arrived at Waitakere Hospital's emergency department with COVID symptoms. They were kept separate from all other patients, tested positive, and have since been moved to MIQ. 

"It's always ominous if a person just turns up at hospital or they're been found by some other screening to be positive," says Prof Baker. 

He says our low numbers are thanks to the time we spent at level 4, not our current level 3 measures. He also believes we only have a brief window of opportunity to finally eliminate the virus and is calling for a rapid review of our tactics because there are stubborn lines of transmission still in the community. 

And that's within "marginalised groups".

"We need to work with marginalised groups where we are pretty certain the virus is continuing to transmit and if it's associated, for example, with drug distribution, then I think that means working with Police and Corrections to promote a harm-reduction approach and that's saying look, we are going to be less concerned with your criminal behaviours, we are going to be very concerned with the extent to which you might be sharing the virus around."

Because most Aucklanders are doing their bit - but that's not going to be enough to reach elimination.