Coronavirus: Dr Ashley Bloomfield not ruling out restrictions easing in Auckland despite high case numbers

The Director-General of Health isn't ruling out restrictions easing in Auckland next week despite rising case numbers. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that Auckland would remain at the first stage of alert level 3 for another week in light of the growing number of community cases. 

The reproduction value (R value - or the average number of people a case will pass the virus on to) of the current outbreak stands at about 1.2 or 1.3, she said, above the "way below 1" where it stood in late September. 

The restrictions will be reviewed by Cabinet again next Monday, based on the advice from the Ministry of Health, with the next possible step seeing outdoor gatherings increased to 25 people as well as retail businesses and public facilities opening their doors. That step is still alert level 3, but previously people couldn't enter most retail premises until alert level 2.

But considering the large number of cases being recorded each day - 35 on Monday and 60 on Sunday - The AM Show's Ryan Bridge asked Dr Ashley Bloomfield whether that was realistic.

"The case numbers are going up," the Director-General replied. "The R value is above one as we discussed yesterday. It's really important within this alert level 3 that Aucklanders keep doing what they need to do within alert level 3 and just keep minimising contact with other people, that's very important to help stop the spread of a virus."

"But the impact of those increasingly high vaccination rates is really apparent and it will become more apparent. That's really what's going to help us with making that shift through those stages, and then, as we all want to do, down alert levels in Auckland."

However, while Auckland's vaccine rate is steadily increasing - 2497 first doses and 14,520 second doses were administered on Sunday - it's yet to hit the 90 percent mark. That's where the Government has said it would be unlikely to impose lockdowns. 

As of Monday's update, 87 percent of Aucklanders had had a first dose, up from 84 percent the week before. But Dr Bloomfield said "what's really important" is the percentage fully vaccinated, which in Auckland is currently 62 percent. The Government last week encouraged people to shorten the time between doses from six weeks to three or four. 

Bridge again asked if it was possible people could be visiting retail outlets in Auckland next week.

"Well of course we review it every week and a team will be doing another assessment in a few days time," Dr Bloomfield said. 

"So saying, at the moment, as we said yesterday, the case numbers are climbing slowly, and the R value is above one, we want to keep that as close to one as possible, and that is in part through our efforts around contact tracing, testing and quarantine, but it's also everybody's job to just stick within those alert level 3 rules, and if you haven't been vaccinated, go out and get vaccinated."

He said, as the first two steps of the three-step road map were still at alert level 3 lockdown, it's important people kept "minimising contact as much as possible with other people".

"That's going to be important over these coming weeks, even as those vaccination rates continue to climb and it's great to see they are."

One of the major concerns with opening up communities while there is transmission of COVID-19 is whether that could overwhelm our intensive care wards.

Dr Bloomfield said about 10 percent of our cases in this outbreak had required hospital-level care. At the moment, with 33 people in hospital, seven are in ICU.

"There is plenty of ICU capacity across Auckland," he said. "The key thing is we don't want to have many people in hospital because that then prevents them from providing all the other care that people need if our beds are full with people with COVID."

"We need to keep the case numbers as long as possible. The hospitals are able to cope with an increase in case numbers and hospitalisations that result, but we don't want to do that. That's why we want to keep the alert level 3 restrictions in place and keep going with that aggressive control that we are currently doing."