Coronavirus: Too early to celebrate declining case totals, expert says

It's too early to say we've peaked, and declining tallies are no reason to celebrate as COVID-19 is still rife in our communities, an epidemiologist says.

University of Auckland professor Rod Jackson said the coronavirus is occurring so frequently right now that anyone with COVID-like symptoms can assume they have virus, unless they get a negative PCR test.

The reported cases are thought to be a fraction of the actual cases out there in the community, he said. So, early celebrations about a dip in case numbers are both premature, and rely on an incomplete picture of what is actually happening.

Yesterday was the fifth day in a row the Ministry of Health said recorded case numbers have declined, with 14,494 new COVID-19 cases reported on Saturday, and the total number of infections dropping by 9000 to 197,251 people currently infected.

The dip was especially marked for Auckland, which on 8 March reported 10,000 cases, but was down to 4509 yesterday.

Jackson said from the data available, he can't tell if New Zealand and Auckland's case numbers have peaked, or not.

"The cases can go up and down from day to day. The most important thing for all the people to realise is that we're only reporting a quarter or a third of all the cases. So, if you've got 20,000 cases reported - there could be 40,000 to 60,000.

"I think it's too early to call. I'd love to believe it's on the decline in Auckland, it's clearly still going up elsewhere, but I just don't think we have any clear idea - we're shooting in the dark because people are either not getting tested, or if they're getting tested many of them are not reported, and the rate at which we report could change over time.

"So it is possible that in Auckland we're still going up."

Rod Jackson.
Rod Jackson. Photo credit: RNZ.

Jackson points out COVID-19 tends to run in ongoing waves, and since the start of the pandemic there has been ongoing waves throughout countries that have battled it around the world.

"We're seeing it not just in NSW, we're seeing it in most of Europe as well, we're just beginning to see the numbers climb again."

"I think governments have taken too many restrictions off too early. I think we're going to see more waves of Omicron - hopefully not as bad, but I'd strongly recommend that we keep some of the basic restrictions in place, the ones that are not too disruptive.

"Certainly masks in public places, certainly people should make an effort to keep their distance."

It is vital that everyone who qualifies for a booster vaccine goes and gets one, he said.

"It's by far the most important thing anyone can do - make sure they're vaxxed to the max. Make sure you're ready for it, you're fully immunised."

In the past three days, 22 people with COVID-19 have died - nearly a 5th of the country's total death toll since the virus arrived here more than two years ago.

And while the number of people dying with the virus is a small percentage of those who test positive, the huge volume of people catching the virus at the moment means experts have warned there will be increasing deaths over the coming weeks.

University of Otago epidemiologist, professor Michael Baker, this morning told First Up that protecting the older and more vulnerable parts of the community from exposure to the virus was important, to try to prevent deaths.

About a million people have been slow getting their booster, he said, but the difference in immunity for those who have it can be lifesaving.

"We know that hospitalisations lag about seven to 10 days after the rise of cases, but unfortunately deaths lag even longer, three to four weeks, so we haven't seen the peak of deaths yet.

"This may rise into that range of 10 to 20 deaths a day for several days, based on international experience."

Michael Baker.
Michael Baker. Photo credit: The Project.

Baker does believe there is rising evidence to say New Zealand's case numbers may have peaked, with Auckland peaking about nine days ago, and the rest of the country about five days ago.

But he said it will take four to six weeks to flatten the high case numbers down.

"Remarkably, yesterday was the first day in six weeks where we saw a drop in cases in every DHB across New Zealand. Obviously you need a few more days to be sure that's a pattern, but that's looking positive."

He said the figures could still sit around 5000 new cases a day for months.

Yesterday, Canterbury University epidemic modeller Michael Plank told RNZ there were strong signs Auckland's case numbers have peaked.

Areas close to Auckland like Hamilton and Tauranga wouldn't be too close behind, but the rest of the country was likely about a week and a half behind, he said.

Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles said there needs to be a settling of the numbers before it could be declared that Auckland had peaked. But she was worried about what is happening in Europe.

"They had a wave and it dropped quite quickly and now it's rising again.

"We're obviously going into winter and that really concerns me because as well as having COVID, we're also soon opening our borders, so we're going to have more things like influenza coming in, so it could be a very difficult winter ahead and I think people really need to be preparing themselves for that."

"The other thing we have to remember is a lot of people who have been infected in this wave in New Zealand have been younger people, so if it moves from younger people into older age groups then we're much more likely to see an increase in deaths."