Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: Cases tipped to surge as more test results land

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The number of Covid cases is predicted to rise dramatically with just half of the highest-risk contacts having returned their test results.

The vast majority of these cases were infected prior to lockdown, but the Government is also unable to yet confirm if the virus has been spreading under lockdown.

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said “some” cases had been infected since lockdown began last Wednesday.

Most of these were close contacts of the cases, most in the same households, however he was unable to confirm if any had spread outside their bubbles, or if any close contacts were essential workers.

Experts are calling on the Government to identify and release this information to the public as soon as it can, given lockdown spread will be the key determinant of whether the outbreak is being brought under control.

Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said it would be useful to see the Government classify cases as those that were in the community before lockdown, those that had been detected while at home, and those that were among essential workers still operating under alert level 4.

“What we really want to know is if there are any unsuspected cases occurring in the community that don’t have a connection to cases reported now, which could suggest some leakiness in lockdown,” Baker said.

Fellow modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said they were now estimating the outbreak could swell to 1000 cases.

'The alternatives are grim'

University of Canterbury Covid-19 modeller Dr Michael Plank said some spread should be expected within households during lockdown, but the most important factor was to prevent spread between bubbles.

Plank said this morning there was still testing to get through, with a delay between those wanting a test and their results.He told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking contacts were being chased down and that the public had to be patient.

He remained confident that the elimination strategy was the right course to take. It had served the community well to date.

He couldn’t say for sure it would work but it was worth giving it “our best shot”, as “the alternatives are grim”, including rolling lockdowns lasting months like in Australia and other countries.

He said it would be several weeks before we could really start to see if the elimination strategy needed revising. “I think if we get to that stage we’ll have a clear picture by then of how we’re tracking and if elimination is possible and how long it would take to get there.”

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Baker told RNZ today it was concerning news that a nurse at Middlemore Hospital had tested positive for Covid.

He said although the staff member was fully vaccinated, they could have picked up the virus another way – not necessarily while at work. “They could’ve easily been infected in other activities.”

It was a possibility, for example, that the nurse was a part of the largest sub-cluster connected to the Assembly of God church in Māngere, Baker said.

“I’m optimistic that we will get on top of this,” Baker said of the virus.

Referring to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments about the absurdity of eliminating the Delta Covid strain, Baker said people needed to remember that that exact thing was being achieved still in some countries and even states in Australia.

“It’s largely a political statement. Elimination is a political choice,” Baker said of Morrison’s comments.

Asked whether New Zealand should still “stay the course”, working to eliminate the Delta strain in the community, Baker agreed, acknowledging that the country had done it before. “I’m confident it will be achieved again in New Zealand.”

Latest cases

Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare told TVNZ today he could not give any updates as “none of the fresh information had been received” in his inbox. He had no information about new locations of interest either.

In regards to an error in which saline is believed to have been administered to five people instead of the vaccine, Henare said an investigation was under way to establish what had happened – whether it was human error or a process issue.

He said officials were “prioritising it” and said he thought those affected had been told. He said it was important people were confident about their vaccines.

Henare rejected criticisms of the rollout. “We are in a good position,” he said.

There were 41 new cases announced Tuesday, including 38 in Auckland, and three in Wellington.There are now 148 confirmed cases in the whole cluster, with 11 cases in Wellington and the rest in Auckland.

Auckland University of Technology confirmed nine cases of Covid-19 and a fully vaccinated health worker was confirmed as a positive case late Tuesday at Middlemore Hospital in the ED department.

The ED remained open and safety precautions were being followed, the DHB said.

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Bloomfield and other health officials appeared with Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins on Tuesday before the health select committee to answer questions from Opposition MPs.

Public health director Caroline McElnay revealed about half of the highest risk contacts were still yet to have their test results returned.

There were 369 close plus contacts, 51 per cent of whom had returned test results, and 11 per cent were positive, she said.

There were 14,967 close contacts, 56 per cent had returned test results, and 0.2 per cent were positive.

And there were 405 casual plus contacts, about half of whom had been tested, with no positive results so far.

Bloomfield said cases were increasingly coming from locations of interest or from close contacts, rather than from people who were infected pre-lockdown.

Eighty-nine of the 148 total cases have been epidemiologically linked, and while the other 59 cases were being investigated, Bloomfield said there was nothing to suggest at the moment they were part of a separate chain of transmission.

One of the cases is an Auckland MIQ worker, but they had caught the virus as a contact of an existing case rather than being suspected of being the potential source.

It was still not known how the virus had originally spread from the Crowne Plaza MIQ to spark the latest outbreak, but two key potential contacts had been identified.

Bloomfield revealed the number of cases in major sub clusters: 58 cases in the Assembly of God Church service in Māngere, and 23 cases in the Birkdale group.

He said there were six sub clusters in total and the other four had far fewer cases.

The church sub cluster, which included six people in Wellington, included people who had been at the August 15 service and their close contacts.

Bloomfield said 27 different church groups took part in the service, but the total number of people at the service was yet to be determined. More than 500 people have been tested.

While there was an increase in the number of cases today, there hadn’t been an exponential increase, and if the lockdown was working, case numbers would peak in the coming days, Bloomfield said.

Around two-thirds of people infected in New Zealand’s Delta outbreak are younger than 30. The youngest case in the outbreak so far is less than 1-year-old.

About 70 per cent of cases in the current outbreak were of Pasifika ethnicity, largely as a result of the sub-cluster of about 58 cases linked to the Assembly of God Church (AOG) of Samoa in Mangere. About 20 per cent were Pākehā.

Dr Debbie Ryan, of Pacific Perspectives, said reports that Pacific people accounted for more than half of the cases in the outbreak – yet just 7 per cent of the population – were “depressingly familiar”.

“No doubt we will get through the current crisis. Pacific communities and health providers and health workers have again pulled together brilliantly to do what is required,” Ryan said.

“But we need a circuit breaker to address these unacceptable disparities.”

More than 9000 contacts had been contacted overall and were self-isolating, while almost 900 frontline contact-tracers were working on the pandemic response.

The Ministry of Health has now reported 439 visits to 326 separate locations of interest.

Contact tracing capacity has also come into the spotlight, as almost 16,000 contacts have been identified, but half of them are still awaiting test results.

A review by public health experts – as part of the independent advisory group led by Sir Brian Roche – into the February cases found a ministry reluctant to increase surge capacity for contact-tracing, and an unwillingness to stress-test the system or do scenario-planning.

It said this contributed to ongoing uncertainty about the system’s ability to handle a large outbreak.

Bloomfield rejected how the ministry was portrayed.

“That’s not a view I did or do hold, that we didn’t need to continue to build surge capacity,” Bloomfield told the committee.

– additional reporting Jamie Morton, Derek Cheng

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