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Ramping Up Measures to Help Monitor COVID-19 in New Zealand

Regardless of the fact that an Australian visitor tested positive for the delta variant that has dominated Australia’s recent COVID-19 outbreaks, New Zealand has avoided community transmission. New Zealand health officials reacted quickly, isolating, and testing contacts and suspending travel. Out of the traveller’s 2,609 contacts, 93% have now returned a negative test result. However, given that the delta variant is up to twice as infectious as the original strain, the unique nature of how COVID-19 spreads explainS in part why New Zealand has been able to avoid an outbreak.

Governments around the world have set up a variety of COVID-19 alert systems to provide the public with situational awareness and policy directives. They typically monitor one or more data streams—for example, COVID-19 case counts, test positivity, hospital capacity, or deaths—and change the alert level when the data reaches certain thresholds.

In New Zealand, COVID-19 alert systems, according to University of Otago researchers, require an urgent overhaul to keep up with the evolving pandemic. As stated in one article, the current alert level system was designed for the pandemic context of last year and failed to promote equity and uphold the Treaty of Waitangi. They call for an upgraded system that better suits Māori communities, and reflects new health knowledge, such as strengthening measures on face masks and ventilation to prevent virus spread from breathing infected air.

“Recent modelling has shown that the Māori have 2.5 times and Pacific people 3 times greater odds of hospitalisation than non-Māori, non-Pacific people. Persistent inequities mean that Māori and Pacific communities face a much greater health burden from COVID-19 and thus updates that ensure that Tae Tiriti is better upheld are necessary.”, commented the Senior Research Fellow (Adjunct), GeoHealth Laboratory, University of Canterbury.

It was also mentioned that it is a timely reminder that New Zealand’s alert level system needs to evolve with the changing pandemic disease pattern and account for what we have learnt since the pandemic began in February 2020.

The proposed alert system is an enhancement to the existing system. It is fundamentally sound, but this proposal includes additional levels to consider when planning implementation and public communication.

Another solution for monitoring and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is by making the COVID-19 tracer app compulsory for the public to scan QR codes on their mobile phones when entering businesses and public places. Per an article, the government would need to negotiate rules with technology companies to prevent the mandatory use of apps that use Bluetooth tracing.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand stated that the Sydney traveller who visited Wellington prior to testing positive for COVIC-19 frequently used the COVID Tracer app. This aided in identifying the points of interest to which the public had been alerted.

While approximately 2600 people were present at the points of interest, only 585 had used the COVID Tracer app. This meant that only about one-third of potential contacts were notified. The Prime Minister also suggested that mandatory scanning be implemented because the use of the tracer app was low, but the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak was heightened as of more contagious strains and the travel bubble opening between Australia and New Zealand.

More broadly, the spread of more transmissible variants around the world has altered the nature of this pandemic. New Zealanders’ complacency after more than 100 days without community transmission creates the ideal conditions for a large outbreak. The revision of the alert level system will allow us to respond to such outbreaks more effectively. The emergence of new variants that are more transmissible and may reduce the effectiveness of some public health measures is of particular concern. For instance, when compared to the original alpha variant, the delta variant is 60% more contagious, making contact tracing more difficult.

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