COVID-19: Daily case numbers on 'upwards trajectory', could peak 'significantly higher' than 200 a day - Chris Hipkins

Ninety-four cases of COVID-19 were recorded in the community on Tuesday, the highest number of cases in a day since the virus entered New Zealand in February 2020 - but Chris Hipkins says that number will continue to grow, with a peak possibly "as low" as 200, or "significantly higher".

Case numbers are on "an upwards trajectory", the COVID-19 Response Minister told The AM Show on Wednesday morning, although there will continue to be some fluctuations day-to-day.

"I think we are on an upwards trajectory in terms of case numbers but the trajectory doesn't tend to follow a straight line, so it's possible there will be some dips and bumps and peaks along the way. I think overall what we're seeing is that case numbers are growing on a daily average basis," Hipkins said. 

However, data modellers are divided on what the peak of the outbreak might look like. Earlier this month, Professor Michael Plank suggested that based on the current trends, Auckland could be recording 160 new cases of COVID-19 each day by November.

"On the current trend, case numbers are doubling roughly every 12 days. Now if that trend continues we would be seeing 160 per day by early November," he told Newshub.

Professor Plank's predictions were echoed last week by Dr David Welch, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Computational Evolution at the University of Auckland. With the R value being about 1.3, he said it can take roughly two weeks for cases to double. 

Based on the data, Auckland will see about 50 cases infectious in the community per day in two weeks' time, he warned - which will escalate to about 100 in a month.

"Where we currently see about 25 new cases [that are] infectious in the community every day. In two weeks we can expect to see about 50, and 100 in a month," Dr Welch said. 

But Hipkins says the latest modelling has yet to conclusively determine how high case numbers could go, with some modellers indicating the peak of the outbreak could sit at around 200 cases - while others are estimating it could be "significantly higher".

"I think one of the things modellers have a variety of different views on is where this is likely to peak in terms of the average daily case numbers. It could be as low as an average of 200 cases a day or it could be significantly higher than that," Hipkins said.

"What we are seeing already across Auckland is that the high rates of vaccination… are having an impact on the overall spread of COVID-19 and on the daily case rate that we're seeing.

"We can take some reassurance that vaccination is playing a role here. Obviously the faster we get those rates up… the better position that we're in."

But Dr Welch said last week that around 200 infectious cases could spell disaster for the already strained and overstretched healthcare system, with concerns rising particularly over  ICU capacity.

"That rate of increase will soon start to put serious pressure on health systems. It will also start to stretch the abilities of the contact tracing teams to track and isolate close contacts," Dr Welch said. 

"Publicly available estimates suggest  the contact tracing system will struggle when there are somewhere between 100 and 200 cases infectious in the community for a sustained period."

As of Tuesday, 89 percent of eligible Aucklanders have received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 - 72 percent have had their second jab, meaning they are fully vaccinated.

Nationwide, 85 percent of New Zealanders have been vaccinated with their first dose and 67 percent are double-jabbed.

It's understood when 90 percent of those aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated, the Government will scrap stay-at-home orders and shift away from restrictive lockdowns due to the high level of immunity. For COVID-stricken Auckland, the epicentre of the outbreak, there are hopes the golden milestone is on the horizon, with indications the region could reach 90 percent vaccination in about a month's time - possibly putting an end to alert level 3 restrictions. 

Inoculation will be an integral element of the Government's COVID-19 response, with vaccine certificates - documents certifying the holder is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 - set to play a crucial role in the new and upcoming framework. Vaccination has already been mandated for some professions, such as frontline workers at the border and those working in managed isolation and quarantine facilities. Last week, the vaccine was also made mandatory for high-risk staffers in the education and health and disability sectors. The education mandate applies to teachers, home-based educators, teacher-aides, administration, maintenance staff, and contractors. 

But Hipkins, who is also the Education Minister, says the mandate will not extend to the students themselves. 

"No, we've always been really clear that we wouldn't require people to be vaccinated in order to access essential services like health and education… those working in those environments, yes we've got a vaccination requirement for them, but not for the students - not for the patients," he said.

It comes as Hipkins prepares to make an announcement on Wednesday regarding the next steps for Auckland's secondary school students, who have been unable to return to the classroom for nine weeks. Schools were tentatively slated to reopen in Auckland on October 18, however that was pushed back.

It's expected Hipkins will provide a date of return during the announcement. He has already signalled that senior students will be the first to get back to the classroom.

"I'm going to give certainty to secondary school students this afternoon," Hipkins told The AM Show. However, he remained tight-lipped on the details, saying the points were still being finalised.

He added that NZQA is still working to determine the processes for students who are unable to sit an exam, or students whose performance has been "unfairly disrupted by COVID-19".

"I don't have absolutely every answer at this point… the details are still being worked through," he said.

"We want to be able to answer all those questions."