Friday, December 3

Against all odds: how New Zealand is turning the delta curve | New Zealand

Less than a month ago, New Zealanders disappeared into their homes, retreating from the public domain like water spilled on a dry sponge. Highways and city streets were nearly empty, stores closed, schools, and playgrounds were deserted. A single case of the highly contagious Delta variant had been detected and the government called for an instant level 4 lockdown, introducing some of the strictest restrictions in the world.

It was a new threat to a country whose response to the Covid-zero pandemic had been ranked one of the best in the world. New Zealand had never faced a Delta outbreak before, and no one knew if its past strategies would be up to the task.

Across Tasmania, a grim picture was emerging: Australia, like New Zealand, had maintained a zero Covid elimination strategy for the first year of the pandemic, but was now struggling with outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria. Both countries had less than a third of their total population immunized. Now that cases in New South Wales routinely reach more than 1,400 a day, the state offered the worst possible case that New Zealand could see.

But now, against all odds, New Zealand is rounding the Delta curve.

“It looks great to end this outbreak,” says Professor Michael Baker, epidemiologist and public health expert. “I wouldn’t say ‘absolute certainty’, but now it’s more a question of when, than if.”

Left alone or managed halfway, the exponential growth of the Delta variant quickly turns a trend line vertically. For many countries in the midst of outbreaks, the goal is to shift that cliff to a slope, spreading the peak over a longer period so health systems don’t collapse and cause unnecessary deaths. In New Zealand, and for some other non-Covid Asia-Pacific states, the target is more ambitious. His goal was not only to reduce the growth line, but also to bend the curve completely, forcing the case numbers to return to zero and eliminating transmission entirely. Today, just under a month after the variant arrived in New Zealand, that goal suddenly seems within our grasp.

After peaking at the end of August with 83 cases per day, the cases have been consistently tracked – the daily numbers haven’t gone above 21 for the past week. Midweek, they fell to 15, then 13, then 11. Modelers predict that barring a disaster, cases should hit single digits next week. Auckland, the center of the outbreak, remains at alert level 4. But most of the country left a harsh lockdown on Wednesday, returning in droves to restaurants, cafes and schools.

‘Very reassuring’

It has not been an easy road. In August, when the outbreak began, Baker told The Guardian it was an infectious disease expert’s nightmare. Nightclubs, churches, restaurants, hospitals, schools – the exhibition event list reads like a checklist of every conceivable high-risk infection gathering.

Nor has it been a path free of detractors. At the international level, some parties described the response at first as an overreaction, disproportionate to the number of cases, and then, as the number of cases increased, as a futile and desperate effort in the face of a variant that had overwhelmed the cases. defenses of others.

“Any state and territory that thinks they can somehow protect themselves from Covid with the Delta strain forever, that’s just absurd,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “New Zealand cannot do that. They followed a strategy of elimination. They are locked “.

But the New Zealand government has so far been unwavering in its commitment to the removal, a strategy that has allowed residents to maintain lives of relative normalcy for most of the past year. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “While we know that Delta is a more dangerous enemy to fight, the same actions that beat the virus last year can be applied to beat it again.”

Experts say the same set of essential tools is working.

“I think we can say, more or less, that our alert level 4 is measured by Delta,” says Professor Shaun Hendy, an epidemic modeler at the Te Pūnaha Matatini research center.

“At first, we were trying to think about how effective Alert Level 4 would be, and we thought it might be substantially less effective against Delta than what we saw in the March and April outbreak,” he says. “But it has actually been very similar: performance has been helped by vaccination rates, no doubt. But basically it has worked almost as well as last year. A couple of weeks later, it looks like we are on our way to eliminating the outbreak. “

Compared to previous outbreaks, “this has been an order of magnitude more severe and has really tested our systems,” says Hendy. “Our systems, you can never say that they are good enough. But in this case, we’ve improved our game enough to get this under control. “

The trajectory of the latest outbreak may also provide some assurance to New Zealand that the country’s strategy of “doing everything possible and start early” may contain a Delta outbreak.

New Zealand also has the opportunity to learn something from the Australian experience.

At the moment, “I think that’s a warning to us,” says Dr. Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist and a leading communicator of the New Zealand pandemic. “They show what happens if you don’t control the transmission. And I guess what they have shown is also whether the virus reaches essential workers and their workplace. “

Experts are careful to warn that there is still a long way to go; In addition to the absolute numbers declining, New Zealand must also increase the percentage of cases without “exposure events” or that are isolated during its infectious period. “If we see declining numbers but we also have several days without unexpected cases, that is very reassuring,” says Baker.

What happens next?

If New Zealand successfully removes the Delta variant, it still raises questions about what’s next for a country that has used extremely strict border controls to stay Covid-free so far. The government had published a tentative plan for the reopening just days before the outbreak began. But on Wednesday, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said it might need to be reassessed. “It would be fair to say that Delta has changed some of its thinking about it, even in the last few weeks,” he said. “Delta has changed the game.”

New Zealand’s phase-out strategy means that it has avoided most of the economic, social, and public health cost of Covid so far. If New Zealand manages to take down Delta again in the coming weeks, that’s an advantage it can try to hold on to.

“We are in the privileged position of a few countries on Earth … that excluded the virus,” says Baker. “We can keep the options open. We are choosing when to get involved with the virus, while most of the world has no other choice. I’d hate for us to give up that edge that we have, until we’re ready to do it on our terms. “

“I’m very optimistic that we can get to elimination,” says Wiles. He pauses, then amends himself: “I guess cautiously optimistic.

“We are in this position for a case, so we have to be very aware of that. One case might be all it takes. “

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