COVID-19: New Zealand 'could eliminate Delta' again, giving us advantage over Omicron - Michael Baker

The dwindling number of Delta COVID-19 cases in the community signal New Zealand could again eliminate the highly infectious variant.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker, from the University of Otago, says Tuesday's COVID-19 case numbers are encouraging. Just 14 Delta infections were detected out of 14,705 tests taken in the previous 24 hours

"Both figures are remarkable," Prof Baker told Newshub. "Fourteen community cases are the lowest for many months… we have seen now, for about six weeks, a decline in the number of Delta cases in New Zealand. 

"We may have seen a reduction in testing over the summer period - that may be pushing the numbers down artificially but this is the week where we'd start to see the effects of people coming back to work and their normal lives.

"It's reassuring that the numbers are quite low and it does raise the interesting possibility we could eliminate [the] Delta variant in New Zealand.

"We know elimination works. The incredible thing would be if we could eliminate everywhere in New Zealand at the same time, that's the end of Delta… in the short-term in New Zealand unless it gets reintroduced."

Prof Baker said while New Zealand was beating Delta and the country's border restrictions were working well against it, Omicron was still likely to arrive in the community at some point.

Stamping out Delta, however, would give New Zealand an advantage should Omicron breach the border, he explains.

"Eliminating Delta in New Zealand would be wonderful because if Omicron arrives, which unfortunately does look fairly likely, we might have only Omicron circulating and one of the worries overseas is what's called 'co-circulation' of two different viral strains - Omicron and Delta.

"We know Delta is causing much more severe illness. We look at places where they've got both [Omicron and Delta] circulating together; the people in ICU have Delta, the people who are feeling really sick and who sometimes get to hospital have Omicron."

Fellow epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig, from Wellington's University of Otago campus, earlier this week urged the Government to delay reopening schools to prevent the effects of Omicron. 

"We see what's happening in other places: people calling for ambulances that don't come, schools and other workplaces unable to function because everyone is sick," Dr Kvalsvig said. 

Prof Baker agreed a delay was something New Zealand should consider. He's also concerned there are not yet enough measures in place to prepare the country for Omicron.

"We have to do our absolute utmost to keep Omicron out of New Zealand while we prepare for it," he said. "The big thing is to put all our energy into vaccinating children as fast as we possibly can."