Author: Zane Small

As the Prime Minister gets ready to decide if New Zealand should move down the COVID-19 alert level ladder, she has provided an example of how we could avoid lockdowns in the future. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet ministers will meet on Monday to review the current alert level settings in the wake of the country's latest coronavirus outbreak, which saw Auckland put under a level 3 lockdown. 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield reported nine new cases of COVID-19 in the community on Friday and they are all in the same south Auckland cluster, which Ardern indicated is good news for our largest city. 

"We have made good progress," she said on Friday. "Unlike our first lockdown, we are not dealing with multiple outbreaks. We are not trying to contact trace more than one cluster. We can pinpoint with much more precision who has affected whom and that helps us to isolate those we need to."

Ardern said the level 3 restrictions in Auckland have played a "critical role" in helping to get the latest outbreak under control. The vast majority of cases since this outbreak began were cases that had been contact-traced, were already in isolation and were then tested.

"That's good news for two reasons," she said. "It tells us we are stopping other people from being infected by identifying positive cases early and it also tells us we are getting in front of the virus."

That will likely play into Cabinet's decision when they meet on Monday. 

"Auckland has been at level 3 for 10 days now and we did say we would check in on those settings today. As a Cabinet we have done that by looking at the latest information," Ardern said. 

"There is nothing to suggest we need to change our course and certainly nothing that suggests we need to escalate our response. But at this stage, we need to stay the course and retain the settings we have for now.

"We have made a good start but it is critically important that over the weekend and early next week we stick to the level 3 rules. No one wants to go backwards and stay at level 3 longer than necessary."

There are encouraging signs that the virus would have been picked up by now if it had spread beyond the south Auckland cluster. 

The Ministry of Health has recorded 170,515 tests since the current alert level settings began last Wednesday, and the World Health Organisation this week said New Zealand has one of the highest rankings in the world for its rate of testing per positive case. 

"This means we can have a high level of confidence around the reach of this cluster and its reach into the community and that we are containing it," Ardern said. 

New Zealand has 269 cases per million people compared to the United States which has 16,563 cases per million people.

Should we expect future lockdowns?

Ardern provided an example of how New Zealand could avoid future lockdowns, pointing to the one community case of COVID-19 since the outbreak began that wasn't linked to the south Auckland cluster. 

"Within this outbreak, we've also seen an example of where - if it had happened on its own - we wouldn't have needed extended restrictions," Ardern said. 

"That is the Rydges case. Here we saw a worker from a managed isolation facility test positive through the testing of all staff. We quickly identified the close contacts. They were tested and they were isolated."

Ardern said if the Rydges case happened on its own without the current south Auckland cluster, the Government would not have needed to increase restrictions across the country. 

"That needs to be our goal for the future," she said. 

The maintenance worker's case was traced to a woman in managed isolation who travelled from the US. Officials have worked out that the pair used the same elevator within a short period of time which is the theory behind how he caught the virus from her.

Ardern acknowledged how the main cluster has some features that made it "particularly difficult", given how it started in our most densely populated city and also hit the community in south Auckland, which has higher levels of social interaction. 

She also noted how the first case in the cluster has not been linked to any obvious source and it became clear when officials traced backwards there were people who had been infected earlier. 

So, there is still a mystery hanging over it - but Ardern seemed optimistic. 

"As you can see from the numbers and the details of the cases shared by Dr Bloomfield, we continue to identify the perimeter or the outer edges of the current cluster."

What do experts say?

Otago University in Wellington Professor of Public Health Michael Baker believes it would be "premature" to lower the alert level in Auckland before next week at the earliest. 

"The Auckland COVID-19 cluster is continuing to generate a steady number of cases each day," he said. "By now we will be starting to see the impact of the alert level 3 measures, which should have dampening down transmission of cases over the past week."

Canterbury University Professor Michael Plank also said it makes sense to wait until Monday. 

"Because of the incubation period of this virus, anyone who was infected after the move to alert level 3 may only be developing symptoms around now. So it will be a few more days before we can be confident we won't see an increase in cases," he said. 

"We also need to the rest of the country to remain at alert level 2 during this period, because there is still a risk that the virus could spread outside the Auckland region."

Article: https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2020/08/jacinda-ardern-explains-how-new-zealand-could-avoid-future-covid-19-lockdowns-ahead-of-alert-level-decision.html
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