Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Dark days—sunnier tomorrow?

There’s no delicate way to put this: Covid-19 is now in the New Zealand community permanently. That has huge implications, obviously, and it’s not overstating things to say it’s sobering for those of us in the reality-based world. New Zealanders are only beginning to adjust to the new world we find ourselves living in, and we have far to go to get to that new world.

When parts of the Waikato moved to Alert Level 3, it was because Covid had been brought from Auckland to this region by someone illegally entering Auckland, becoming infected with Covid, and then returning here. They, in turn, spread it to people who spread it to people, and so on. It spread beyond the original two cases in the Waikato to other areas, before forming a new cluster in Te Awamutu, south of Hamilton. That cluster has continued to grow, and last Thursday the Alert Level 3 for parts of the Waikato was extended six days, until at least tomorrow at 11:59pm (the decision on our Alert Level will be announced tomorrow).

Over the weekend we learned that someone associated with that latest cluster carried the virus to the top of the South Island—the first time the South Island has had a positive case in the community in nearly a year. There were also concerns about other areas that could’ve been exposure to that infected person. All of that is against the backdrop of dramatically rising numbers of infected people, the vast majority in Auckland.

On Tuesday of last week (Oct 19), it was announced that there were 94 new cases of Covid in the community, the largest number since the pandemic began (on both April 1 and 5, 2020, there were 89 new cases). We were just beginning to adjust to that shock when, two days later, on Thursday, it was announced that there was another new record: 102 new cases in the community. The very next day, Friday, it was announced that there was yet another new record, 129 new cases in the community.

This past weekend was the Labour Day Holiday Weekend, although for those of us under Level 3, it was pretty much like any other weekend under Lockdown. Still, we had a bit of a respite on Saturday: 102 new cases, down on the previous day. On Sunday, the numbers were down again, to a “mere” 80 new cases, but it was also announced that it had spread to another town, Ōtorohanga. However, on Monday, Labour Day, there were 109 new cases in the community—a new second-highest tally.

Together with the 79 new cases announced today, there have been 586 new cases announced over the past week. Those are a staggering numbers for a country that once successfully defeated Covid—and then successfully stamped it out whenever it popped up again. Delta changed everything.

Because the disease is so easy to transmit, it spreads rapidly, and there’s little hope of containing it permanently. In fact, authorities have warned us that within a week or two we could see daily totals of more than 200+. This past Friday morning, I watched the livestream of the Government announce its new “COVID-19 Protection Framework”, which sets the structure within which fully-vaccinated people can enjoy the freedom of nearly “normal” life. I think that the traffic light metaphor is a useful one for understanding what we can do, and when, but there’s something that I think is even more important: Fully-vaccinated people won’t continue to be held hostage by the unvaccinated.

Covid is exceptionally good at finding unvaccinated people to infect, leading health officials and experts to refer to it as “a heat-seeking missile for the unvaccinated”. The vast majority of positive cases in New Zealand have been unvaccinated, as have an even bigger proportion of those hospitalised. Because so many people are still unvaccinated, we endure constant and ongoing Lockdowns (Auckland has been under some form of Lockdown for 70 days now, and here in Hamilton, we’ve been under this current Level 3 Lockdown for three weeks and two days, not that I’m counting…). That can’t continue.

Something we might call “pandemic fatigue” is settling in, making people grumpy and impatient—and leading them to ignore the Lockdown rules, which is precisely the reason the number of new cases in Auckland has started rising so quickly. There’s simply no way that using lockdowns as our only response can succeed in containing the disease, especially with large numbers of unvaccinated people still there for Covid to infect.

That “large numbers of unvaccinated people” thing is relative, though. Currently, approximately 79% of eligible New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, and 87% have had at least one jab. That means that we’re very close to achieving 90% fully vaccinated, though the government is aiming to ultimately have the highest vaccination rates in the world. As it is, conservative governments around the world decided that 70% fully-vaccinated was high enough to throw out all or most restrictions so that businesses can make more profits. That’s predictably resulted in rising numbers of cases—and deaths—so some governments instead set a target of 80% fully-vaccinated, which New Zealand is nearly at. The evidence clearly shows that the risk of both illness and death goes down the higher vaccination rates get, which is why our government has set a dramatically higher target than many governments would consider.

Getting there won’t be easy. First, “eligible population” means New Zealanders 12+, and there are a lot of children in New Zealand who can’t yet get a vaccine (though the government expects to eventually be able to vaccinate children 6-11, too). At the moment, this means that the number of vaccinated people as a percentage of the total population is much smaller, and that might matter when Covid gets loose nationwide, particularly in vulnerable communities.

Because of that latter risk, the government says that the nation’s DHBs (District Health Boards) must get to 90% fully-vaccinated before the new system goes into effect. They’ve said, however, that Auckland will go to the new system when its three DHBs all get to 90%, and they’re open to the South Island doing the same. That would leave most of the North Island, geographically speaking, under the old system and subject to lockdowns.

This has been criticised by some experts who think we should continue trying to eliminate Covid, even though it would mean Auckland could be under Lockdown for a many months—even a year? Longer? And other parts of the country would continue to get snap lockdowns, too. That’s unsustainable.

Others have criticised the government for moving while the vaccination rates are so low for Māori, however, the important thing about that is that the DHBs with the lowest vaccination rates simply won’t be able to get to 90% fully vaccinated unless there are dramatic increases in the number of Māori who are vaccinated, in rural areas in particular. Under the current plan, then, not only will unvaccinated Māori not be left behind, there’s a strong incentive to get their vaccination rates higher, too.

In the meantime, the government announced this afternoon that they’re “mandating vaccination for workers at businesses where customers need to show COVID-19 Vaccination Certificates.” That will include things like hospitality, gyms, hairdressers and barbers. The government will legislate to require this, and to provide the legal framework to give businesses certainty. Employees who don’t get vaccinated will get a mandatory 4-week paid notice period to give them time to comply, and only at the end of that will they be terminated if they don’t get vaccinated. There will also be specific exemptions for the tiny, tiny number of people who cannot get vaccinated. No government assistance programme will be affected—in other words, fired workers will still be able to apply for the benefit. And, of course, essential services, like supermarkets, pharmacies, and healthcare, will be forbidden to use vaccine certificates as a condition of entry. The vaccine mandates won’t begin until the new Covid-19 Protection Framework begins.

This is a necessary step. If vaccine certificates are a requirement for people to enter and patronise certain businesses, then those customers ought to be able to have certainty that the people they’re dealing with in that business are also vaccinated. It will also dramatically reduce the possibility of, say, a bar or gym becoming a source of community infections.

Ultimately, there will be a small number of people who make the choice not to get vaccinated, and they are free to make that choice—however, they are not free from the consequences of the choice they make. The vast majority of New Zealanders simply want to get on with life and not endure endless and long-term lockdowns. We have a framework for moving forward, but it all still rests on vaccination.

This is the world we’ll soon live in, and most of us are fine with it.


Roger Owen Green said...

I've had COVID fatigue forever, it seems. Still, your adult fully vaccinated rate is greater than in the US, which is around 69%, and we started sooner. CCOVID will be the new normal, like flu season.

FWIW, I have THREE shots of Pfizer. Oh, and my flu shot.

Arthur Schenck said...

I think the "fatigue" is getting worse—it is for me, anyway. As of today, New Zealand now has 75% of the eligible population fully vaccinated and 88% have had at least one dose. The pace is far too slow, though, especially for those of us who are bloody sick of lockdowns.