New Zealand’s plans to reopen its borders to the world early next year will have to undergo a complete reworking, the government has warned, as the country races to stamp out an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant.
The nation recorded 15 new cases of coronavirus in the community on Wednesday, bringing the total number in the outbreak to 855.
It was the fifth day in a row that case numbers have been below 21, in an encouraging sign the country is on its way to stamping out the virus. But how the virus got into the community in the first place remains a mystery.
All of the new cases were in Auckland, which remains in a level 4 lockdown until next week, and all but two were epidemiologically linked to existing cases. There were 25 unlinked cases in total. Three-quarters of the recorded cases were in isolation throughout the period they were infected.
The rest of the country was in level 2, although some restrictions remained on gathering size and using masks in some public places.
The likelihood of New Zealand reopening its border to the world any time soon is looking less promising. The country has had strict border measures in place since the pandemic started.
Hipkins told parliament on Tuesday night that the government’s reopening plan, unveiled just days before the outbreak would have to be completely re-worked.
Part of that strategy included risk-profiling of other countries, so places with high rates of vaccination and low levels of Covid-19 could be treated differently to places where the virus was rampant.
“We were looking at a situation where you could stratify countries based on risk, and I think in the Delta environment, we actually have to consider whether, in fact, that’s an appropriate thing to do, recognising that all countries, all people coming into the country at this point, have a degree of risk associated with them,” Hipkins said.
At Wednesday’s media briefing, Hipkins added that talks of a Trans-Tasman bubble were ongoing but that it would be a while before the bubble could resume.
Of the total cases in New Zealand, 215 people had recovered from the virus. There were 37 people in hospital, with 6 people in intensive care and 4 on ventilators.
Most of the 855 people in the outbreak had not had a vaccine, while 115 people have had one dose and 38 were fully vaccinated.
As of Wednesday, more than 38,000 close contacts had been identified, with 87% of those having had at least one test. There were more than 72,800 vaccine doses administered on Tuesday, bringing the total number of doses given out to 4,032,710. More than 60% of the eligible population (12 years and older) have now had their first dose, with a third of that population fully vaccinated.
Hipkins said on Wednesday that a significant investigation into the Crowne Plaza, a managed isolation quarantine facility in Auckland, shed no light on how the virus was transmitted into the community.
The first community case was epidemiologically linked to a traveller who had recently returned to New Zealand from Sydney, and who stayed at the facility. An atrium in the hotel and a public walkway were narrowed down as possible sites of transmission, but Hipkins said the “exact chain” had not been established.
Audits showed that ventilation at the Crowne Plaza met the relevant infection prevention and control standards and there was a less than 1% chance that it came via someone standing in the lobby.
On Tuesday, the health ministry confirmed 29 staff at Middlemore hospital were close contacts of a Covid-19 case and have been stood down for 14 days, after a person who tested positive for the virus showed up to the emergency department on Saturday with abdominal pain. Four wards were closed to any new admissions and all patients were being managed under strict infection and prevention control measures.
The man denied having knowledge of being in contact with the virus or being in a location of interest and did not have any other symptoms.
The three patients who initially shared a room with the case are now in isolation. One has been discharged to a managed isolation facility and the other two will stay in isolation rooms at the hospital as they continue receiving treatment.
Hipkins encouraged everyone who could be vaccinated to do so, adding that the supply was not going to run out. There were roughly 629,000 doses currently in the country, he said.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced on Tuesday the country was “finalising arrangements” to secure extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine in order to keep up with the increased pace of its rollout.