Saturday, December 4

Covid-19: Experts Warn of Sticking Points for Alert Level Drops

Experts have warned of some hot spots that could prevent parts of the country from lowering alert levels this weekend.

Central Auckland on Wednesday August 25, 2021 on the eighth day of a Covid-19 lockdown.

Auckland central during the running of the bulls.
Photo: RNZ / John Edens

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted that alert level 4 would expire at midnight tonight everywhere except Auckland.

Cabinet ministers will meet today to decide whether to go ahead with that plan or to extend the restrictions again.

University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker said public information, to date, painted a “reassuring picture” outside Auckland.

As such, he said that a change to alert level 3 in the near future would seem “quite reasonable” as long as the use of masks remains mandatory.

Baker said the high levels of community testing and wastewater testing would act as safeguards.

“The risks of falling too early … are covered in part by the fact that you can detect cases if they occur and go back to level 4 if necessary,” Baker said.

“Nobody wants to do that, but I think we’re pretty close to the point where we could do it with a reasonable degree of safety.”

The cabinet would have to decide where to draw the geographic boundaries between the different alert levels, Baker said.

One option would be to divide the country into two with different levels for the northern and southern islands. Another would be to draw a ring around the Auckland region.

Professor Michael Baker.

Michael Baker, professor of epidemiology at the University of Otago.
Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Baker said it was difficult to make predictions without more detailed information from the Health Ministry.

He said the ministry should reveal every day how many of the new cases were being isolated, how many were essential workers and how many were breaking the rules.

“If you are sitting at home, or if you are looking at the Ministry’s website, there is not much information to guide the risk assessment,” he said.

“We are a nation of epidemiologists now … it’s not that hard to do [the data] much more intelligible. “

Baker said he would also like confirmation that all new cases are linked to existing cases or arise from manageable “exposure events.”

Any unexpected event would be an ominous sign that control of the outbreak is lost due to unknown chains of transmission, he said.

University of Canterbury professor Michael Plank said he had considered it likely, until yesterday’s media update, that the country outside of Auckland would lower alert levels at midnight tonight.

However, he said he was concerned about the news that Covid-19 had been detected in Christchurch wastewater.

“It’s not final,” Plank said. “It could be related to cases at MIQ, but it seems like a small coincidence. I think the government will want to see that.”

Authorities confirmed yesterday that there were three cases of Covid-19 in quarantine and isolation facilities managed in the city, which could explain the result.

Plank said the government can delay any change in the alert level until early next week to wait for a few more days of data.

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