Covid 19 coronavirus: Why delta variant makes Sunday’s alert level decision more complicated

ANALYSIS

Levels of angst in Wellington have dropped but we’re still not clear of the Covid knife edge the capital has been straddling.

The zero cases from yesterday is a stronger sign that the Sydney tourist didn’t infect anyone during his holiday weekend. Those results account for the time period when people who might have been exposed to the virus were more likely to test positive.

Today’s results from yesterday’s tests also cover this time period, so, again, health officials will be watching closely.

Ongoing concerns include the up to 100 people who shared a crowded bar space with the infected tourist and were initially told they didn’t need to isolate.

We also await 300-odd test results from people who shared a crowded indoor space with the Sydney tourist, though there have been 248 negative results from similar contacts so far.

And no sign of Covid-19 in the wastewater.

If there are no new cases by the time Cabinet meets tomorrow to decide Wellington’s alert level fate, then it seems increasingly likely that the tourist is one of the majority of Covid-carriers who simply don’t spread.

Ministers will, as always, base decisions on how many cases there are, where they are, whether they can all be connected, and whether they’ve been out and about or self-isolating.

One thing they will be mindful of is how the threshold for switching alert levels has changed.

The delta variant is far more explosive, meaning it would be much more challenging for our public health teams to ring fence any delta outbreak.

Transmission of the delta variant can happen, as we have seen, with the simple passing of strangers in a mall.

Even if a splash of new cases has popped up by Sunday and they were all connected – which would normally be easily contained at level 1 – there would be a case for Cabinet to prolong level 2 or even escalate it.

Only mask-wearing was imposed when the first few cases – which were all linked – emerged in Sydney. There are now 65 cases, and a lockdown came into effect early this morning.

This highlights how out of date our alert level system is. It was compiled in haste, is well over a year old, and we now know that aerosol transmission is much more common than initially thought.

An alert level system that reflected this would include mandatory QR scanning at high-risk places like pubs and bars, and wider use of masks in indoor areas. This is what public health experts including Professor Michael Baker have repeatedly called for.

The Government isn’t singularly focused on keeping the virus out – otherwise the border would be closed to everyone – and has to consider issues such as practicality, costs, and public compliance.

It has preferred to keep the alert level systems as they are to avoid confusing the public, and to tweak them to specific outbreaks when necessary.

That’s what happened for the August cluster last year, for example, when Auckland was put into alert level 2.5.

But there was no evidence of that flexibility this week, when the presence of a possible super-spreader and several super-spreading events would have easily justified widespread use of indoor mask-wearing in Wellington.

The other big question mark in the Government’s response hangs over the 2400-odd unvaccinated workers at the border – mainly at ports.

A public health order means that MIQ workers and government workers cannot legally work at the border without being fully vaccinated.

But that doesn’t apply to privately-employed workers at the ports and airports. Such workers have caught Covid-19 before. The spark that led to the Sydney outbreak was a limo driver carrying airline crew.

Baker wants the public health order strengthened so all border workers have to be fully vaccinated to work on the frontline.

The Government is yet to provide any compelling reasons why this isn’t already the case.

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