As the number of new cases reached 71 on Thursday, details emerged about how the health care system would cope with the growing demand. Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson also warned about illegal gatherings at home. Video / NZ Herald
In a race against the Delta, the government is completely overhauling how things are managed so that low-risk individuals will be isolated to vacate quarantine rooms for people who are more likely to infect others.
The change will allow tens of thousands of Kiwis who want to return home from abroad to do so – but probably by early next year.
In an exclusive interview with the Herald, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said most people in the MIQ are not infected, but more and more people are occupying rooms that will be needed as the Delta catches up.
The government is working on similar changes with more open borders for 2022, but as the number of cases increases, so does the need for a sprint to vaccinate people.
Yesterday, 71 new events took place, which is the highest daily figure since the beginning of September.
“Unlike what we did a few months ago, we shouldn’t go overboard that we have to make some big decisions based on a fundamentally different risk profile,” Hipkins said.
Covid was not in the community at the time, and the risk was largely borderline, as foreign travelers were potentially carrying the virus.
But Delta is now in the community and here to stay.
There were 284 out of 586 quarantine rooms and 617 active cases on Wednesday. It is estimated that this number will reach 160 every day by the beginning of November, and may exceed 1,000 during the week.
At this point, the contact tracking capability that occurred in 170-180 incidents yesterday will be under serious strain, and MIQ devices will be at the point of explosion.
“We need to look at our MIQ settings. Are we isolating the right people?” Hipkins said.
“Currently, there is no Jovid in the MIG, most of them, including international contacts and close contacts,” he said.
“When you deal with real events in society, you want to isolate as many people as possible safely, so the whole risk assessment changes.”
This means that those at low risk of infecting others will be isolated at home, while those at high risk will be transferred to the MIQ.
These may include people who are ill, who live in large families or in areas that are difficult to isolate, or who are less likely to fit into a high-security model.
Asked when home isolation could begin, Hipkins said, “Now we’re at that point. If we could find a job that could be safely isolated at home today, we would tell them to do it – especially asymptomatic.”
The MIQ has a capacity of about 4,500 rooms in two weeks, but most are for foreigners.
Hipkins noted that there will be a shorter MIQ for fully vaccinated Kiwis who come home with a negative pre-departure test – it remains to be seen when this will begin.
MIQ opens up more MIQ locations for Kiwis abroad who are outraged by the check lottery.
However, given the expected increase in events, Hipkins said that the doors of the Kiwis abroad will not be expanded “probably until the beginning of next year.”
“We don’t suddenly turn on the faucet or anything like that.”
‘Fuel for fire’ warning
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said it was not risky to isolate the house, but it was better to use it in low-risk situations than to use it for high-risk patients because the MIQ rooms were full.
“With suppression, you are no longer interested in every transmission event, but in reducing the transmission frequency,” he said.
“You give more of your source to people who are most vulnerable or at the highest risk of infection – for example, people in the worst housing conditions.”
Professor Michael Plank, a Covid-19 model, said the government had no choice, given the growing number of fights and the limited MIQ area.
“We won’t have enough MIG space for the fight numbers we’ll see.”
He warned that violating home insulation regulations would “add fuel to the fire” as an extended contact tracking system.
Although the Herald learned last week that some health workers in Auckland had resigned, 25 additional contact workers had already been brought to Auckland.
Hipkins is also looking at medical professionals at sea to reduce the burden on the health system.
He expected about 350 medical workers, including some ICU specialists, to be allowed to enter New Zealand.
“We’ll find a way to get them in the next few months. Of course we’re trying to get them in as soon as we can.”
The turning point
Hipkins spoke openly about the expected growth and the possibility of the Delta spreading beyond Auckland if thousands of people leave the city every day.
On Tuesday, police arrested two sex workers who were traveling from Auckland to Blenheim without permission.
Public health experts said last week in Auckland the chances of a return to zero were reduced, but Hipkins said hope was gone about three weeks ago.
“It simply came to our notice then [in daily case numbers], “Yes, we can do it,” I thought.
“It was a turning point. It became clear when we started to withdraw from the single-digit cases that we only lasted for a day or two. It was also a point where we were in a very difficult situation. To reach a part of society.”
That was after Auckland moved from Level 4 to Level 3, but Hipkins claims that staying at Level 4 will not return to zero.
“The biggest increase in the situation was from closed social gatherings [including at level 4]. Level 4 and Level 3 only work when people are doing it voluntarily. “
‘The clock is ticking’
The government is increasingly banking on vaccination sprints as increasing cases squeeze MIG gaps and public health workers.
“There’s a reason we’re so tired this week, focusing on Super Saturday,” Hipkins said.
“The clock is ticking every day, it’s like ticking. You just have to hire more people.”
If the first doses in Auckland manage to reach 90 percent by the end of this week, it could potentially be up to 90 percent in double doses, and only five weeks until 90 weeks after full vaccination.
Hipkins said more people are using walking clinics to deliver the second dose, so Auckland could reach 80 percent in two weeks.
On Saturday, the Aucklanders would see teams in Auckland from vulnerable and unvaccinated people – including young Maori and Pacifica in South Auckland – who needed a good vaccination provision before they saw more freedom.
“It would be fair to say that we are very aware of the investment problem we have. That’s a factor,” Hipkins said.
The government is also working to replace the warning level system with a risk-adjusted traffic light system.
Green was similar to level 1, facial coverings were encouraged but not mandatory, but larger events may require proof of vaccination. Orange will look like level 2 and red will look like level 2.5.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to give more information about the new system on Monday.