22 Sep 2021

Pasifika health experts call for more testing as Auckland drops alert levels

10:32 am on 22 September 2021

While the New Zealand Government urges 'caution' over its decision to ease restrictions in Tāmaki Makaurau, some health experts are not so sure it was the right thing to do.

Covid 19 in NZ in numbers

Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Auckland would move to level three on Wednesday for two weeks amid an outbreak of the delta variant in the city.

She said on Monday the move to level 4 in August had prevented thousands of infections, and those still happening were mostly among households.

Ardern said this was not happening in the workplace or essential services and made the move to level 3 possible, even with transmission still happening, and some mystery cases.

There have been calls since for Aucklanders to be vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent further spread of the outbreak.

Health experts believe this could also impact Aotearoa's most vulnerable communities.

Pasifika immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, of Otago University, is one of them.

She said Auckland's drop to alert level three puts Māori and Pasifika at further risk.

Dr Sika-Paotonu

Dr Sika-Paotonu Photo: Otago University

She said people would need to stay vigilant despite the lower alert level,

"Our Māori and Pacific communities remain highly vulnerable to being disproportionately effected by Covid-19.

"It's going to be critical that those who aren't vaccinated at this point in time, get the vaccine as quickly as possible."

The Government said 79 percent of Aucklanders had received one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Dr Sika-Paotonu said a major shift in focus was needed in order to get young people immunised.

"It will be important to ensure that our young people also get vaccinated because they are one of the last groups to be added to the vaccination program.

"It will also be important that any questions or concerns that they have are addressed and that they are included and involved in leading youth-targeted efforts."

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, of Otago University, said the move would make it harder to repeat the success of last year's lockdown.

Professor Baker, who pushed the Government to adopt its elimination strategy last year, said there was this long tail of cases, "and we're seeing every day, pretty much, an unexpected case."

"These are important because some of these people have been out in the community. They are a sign of transmission in the community, and if that transmission carries on that means that the outbreak could get out of control at some point."

Samoa-born epidemiologist Dr Corina Grey from the University of Auckland agrees.

She is also calling on Aucklanders to vaccinate as soon as possible to prevent further spread of the outbreak impacting Aotearoa's most vulnerable communities.

Dr Grey was not expecting the move to level 3.

"I'm surprised because there were still some unlinked cases and there were those new cases in northern Hauraki in the Waikato. That area is going up to level four while we are going down to level three.

"I guess the government has weighed the risks.

"But this makes it even more important that we really drive up those vaccination rates to try and get a high-level of protection in the community.

Dr Corina Grey.

Dr Corina Grey. Photo: Supplied

"We also need to encourage people to abide by the level 3 rules and be vigilant," Dr Grey said.

The Associate Dean Pacific and Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Auckland, Dr Collin Tukuitonga, said Auckland's move to alert level 3 had triggered speculation about whether the national Covid-19 elimination strategy has failed or is even being abandoned.

While the government denies it, others clearly believe it is at least a possibility, Dr Tukuitonga said.

"After 18 months of dealing with the pandemic, Māori and Pasifika were most at risk of infection from Covid-19 - of being hospitalised and of dying from the disease.

"More than 50 percent of all new cases in the current outbreak were among Pacific people and the number of new cases among Māori was also increasing.

"If and when the pandemic ends, the implications of these socio-economic factors - small businesses and personal incomes, student life and learning, and well-being in general - must be part of any review of the pandemic strategy."

Dr Tukuitonga said many families need additional food parcels and social support, and there are reports of an increasing incidence of family harm.

Michael Plank, of Te Pūnaha Matatini and the University of Canterbury, said there was a danger that the increased number of people out in the community and the workplace at level 3 would "add fuel to a smouldering fire and lead to an increase in cases".

The Government also announced fines for breaching Covid-19 restrictions will increase sharply.

The maximum fine for an individual breaching restrictions will rise from 3-hundred dollars to 4-thousand dollars.

For companies, the maximum will rise to 12-thousand dollars.

Dr Collin Tukuitonga.

Dr Collin Tukuitonga. Photo: RNZ / Screenshot

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