23 Mar 2022

Are the loosened Covid-19 rules enough? Experts have their say

7:32 pm on 23 March 2022

The announcement of loosening of Covid-19 measures has not been met with all-round approval from experts, with some split over whether the removal of vaccine pass requirements makes sense.

COVID-19 healthcare worker inside hospital wearing mask silhouette woman walking. Concept for anxiety, social distancing impact of coronavirus.

Photo: 123rf.com

Read more on the changes and reaction:

  • What you need to know: Key changes for scanning, vaccine passes and mandates
  • Parties critical of plan to lower Covid-19 restrictions
  • Businesses disappointed with parts of government's Covid-19 roadmap
  • Vaccine passes and mandates

    Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor at the University of Auckland, said while she was relieved to see that not all measures had been dropped, it was still disappointing that vaccine passes, scanning requirements and some mandates would be gone soon.

    "The data from overseas is really clear - those countries that have dropped restrictions as their Omicron wave was subsiding are now experiencing another wave."

    Even after the Omicron peak, dropping of these measures would still mean greater risk for those who could not get vaccinated, Wiles said.

    "We know that being boosted helps reduce transmission of this virus so upgrading vaccine passes to include the booster would have helped keep indoor environments safer for the more at-risk members of our community.

    "Similarly, removing vaccine mandates for people working with our children who can't yet be vaccinated makes me very nervous."

    Siouxsie Wiles

    Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles is worried about the removal of vaccine mandates in education settings where children cannot yet be vaccinated. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

    Immunologist Dianne Sika-Paotonu, senior lecturer at University of Otago Wellington, agreed that being 'fully vaccinated' should now also include a booster dose.

    Yesterday, epidemiologist Michael Baker noted the same as Wiles - that updating our tools like vaccines passes was essential to keep ahead of the virus.

    "Rather than saying 'oh, let's lift all the restrictions', try and keep ahead of what we think the virus will do and I think cautiously remove controls and try and avoid having a second peak."

    Epidemiologist Michael Plank, from Te Pūnaha Matatini and a professor at University of Canterbury, said allowing unvaccinated people into hospitality places would not alter the risk of catching the virus in those places, given that vaccines were not as effective in preventing transmission and infection when it came to Omicron, and the population's increasing infection-acquired immunity.

    University of Canterbury professor, Michael Plank

    Epidemiologist Michael Plank Photo: Supplied.

    "There are likely to be lots of Covid-positive people there either way. As a blanket measure, vaccine passes are therefore much less effective now at reducing transmission than they were a few months ago."

    However, he agreed that keeping masks was crucial to limit transmission as the pressure on health system was likely to remain high.

    "Now that RATs [rapid antigen tests] are becoming more widely available, adding a requirement to 'test to release' after the seven-day isolation period would reduce the risk of people going back into the community while still infectious."

    Vaccine Pass Requirement Sign

    (File image) Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

    Digital technology expert Andrew Chen, a research fellow at the University of Auckland, said the government's move on vaccine passes made sense, because international data had shown that they were effective at encouraging vaccine uptake but did not have much of an impact on transmission rates in access-restricted venues.

    No caption

    Digital technology expert Andrew Chen Photo: Supplied

    "However, keeping the vaccine pass infrastructure to allow businesses and organisations to voluntarily use vaccine passes makes sense.

    "It is important that those businesses and organisations, however, understand that they are making their own decision to continue using this tool, and cannot rely on government regulation as the reason for using these passes.

    "I am a little worried about customers or members of those organisations being angry at those that continue to use and require vaccine passes, and it is important that we all respect the choice to continue using passes."

    Chen said further announcements on vaccine pass validity should be expected in the next month or so because the system currently sets all vaccine passes to expire by 1 June.

    "For many people their vaccine passes will expire in the next two months as they reach six months from when the passes were originally issued.

    "There may still be changes to how vaccine passes are defined, including whether or not a third booster shot is required in order to receive a vaccine pass."

    Surveillance and new variants of concern

    Machine sorts positive Covid-19 samples for genome testing.

    A machine sorts positive Covid-19 samples for genome testing. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

    Covid-19 is here to stay, Wiles said, and discussions about changes for safer indoor environments would have been appropriate to have underway now, with another wave of cases potentially lurking in the weeks to come.

    "This variant [Omicron] may appear milder because of the protection of our vaccines and improvements in treatments, but there is no guarantee the next variant will be the same."

    Covid-19 modeller David Welch, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, said Aotearoa's genomic surveillance system needed to be improved to catch new variants that arrived or emerged in the country.

    "The current genomic surveillance system is inadequate for these purposes, with few genomes being sent for sequencing and patchy geographical coverage.

    "Genomic surveillance is a key line of defence in controlling Covid-19. It needs to be recognised as central to our response and funded appropriately so that diagnostic labs are incentivised and compensated to send all positive samples for sequencing."

    University of Otago senior lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, Dianne-Sika-Paotonu.

    Immunologist Dianne Sika-Paotonu Photo: Supplied

    With border restrictions easing soon after some requirements drop, monitoring for new variants would be crucial, Sika-Paotonu said.

    "It will be difficult to prevent rapid spread of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant once reaching the community, if capable of evading the protection given by currently available Covid-19 vaccines."

    Vaccine inequities contributed towards the ongoing generation of new Covid-19 variants, while unaddressed, she said.

    "Vaccination inequities with respect to Māori and Pacific peoples, tamariki and tamaiki are again evident in booster and vaccination levels for our children, tamariki and tamaiki aged 5-11 years."

    QR code scanning requirements

    Associate professor Siouxsie Wiles said she would have preferred if QR code scanning was kept, because it would be easier for people to pick up the habit again if another variant of concern emerged.

    Digital technology expert Andrew Chen said he was disappointed that the requirement for businesses to display a QR code or provide a mechanism for record-keeping would be removed.

    "The compliance cost of having QR code posters printed out is not that high, and I believe it is important for individuals to continue to have the option to scan the QR code if they want to.

    "The prime minister indicated that if there was a new variant or a different type of outbreak that they may call for people to scan QR codes again - leaving the infrastructure in place, including having QR codes available for scanning, is critical to supporting a fast response."

    A person using the Covid Tracer app

    (File image) Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

    Chen said although use of QR code scanning had dropped at a rate of 20-30 percent per week over the last month, hundreds of cases were providing Bluetooth data each day.

    "Bluetooth Tracing is now more automated, as positive cases are given a code to upload their data through the self-reporting form that they complete after reporting a positive test result.

    "The latest Ministry of Health data shows ... there are thousands of devices generating exposure notifications (approximately 3000-4000 in the last week).

    "There are still 2.35 million devices with Bluetooth Tracing active, which (assuming that each device corresponds to one person) corresponds to almost 60 percent of the adult population in New Zealand - one of the highest rates of participation in digital contact tracing in the world."

    Currently, about 3 to 15 percent of positive cases each day were providing Bluetooth data, Chen said.

    "This tool is providing value in our response and gives individuals further information with which they can make their own risk assessment decisions."

    Disclaimer: David Welch's university has received funding from Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Health Research Council, and Ministry of Health for his work analysing and reporting on Covid-19 genomics. Michael Plank is partly funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for research on mathematical modelling of Covid-19. Andrew Chen has had interactions with the Ministry of Health around digital contact tracing in an academic capacity but is not employed or paid by them.

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