The decision to move Auckland to Alert Level 3 from midnight Tuesday is a risk calculated by the government. Daily new cases in Auckland have remained stubbornly high over the past week, a time when many of us were hoping to see them drop to single digits.
On a positive note, most of these new cases were identified through contact tracing and many were isolated before testing positive, meaning they were less likely to infect others.
However, a few worrying continue to test positive before being identified by contract tracers. Ideally, we would like to not see these cases again, as they are much more likely to have been contagious in the community. We cannot be sure that the Delta outbreak is contained until they become rare.
This does not mean that level 4 has failed or that level 3 will fail. By the time this outbreak was detected on August 17, there were several hundred cases in the community. Level 4 put a damper on that, but our contact tracers struggled to completely extinguish the outbreak.
At this stage, there still seems to be a low level of dispersion between households. Level 3 gives the virus more opportunities to spread and contact tracers will have to work harder to get ahead of cases.
The government is hoping the number of cases is now small enough that contact tracing is focused on suburbs where the spread is still evident.
Read more: With lockdowns easing for rest of New Zealand, Auckland becomes first elimination line
Contact tracers find that most new cases are not infected in workplaces or essential services, but through extended family or friends. This means that increasing the number of workplaces and departments operating at Level 3 can be a relatively low-risk way to ease the lockdown, provided they carefully follow the proper procedures.
But it also means that it’s absolutely crucial that people continue to stick to their bubbles. The risk level has decreased over the past five weeks, but the danger is certainly not over. We all need to resist the temptation to hang out with family or friends.
New cases beyond the Auckland border
One of the unexpected cases was that of a person who tested positive while in detention after a court appearance. The man was released on bail from Auckland Prison on September 8, returning to his home in WhakatÄ«wai, which is outside the city limits of Auckland. He remained at home, monitored electronically, until the end of last week, when he returned to Auckland for a court appearance.
The most likely scenario is that he was infected as he left Auckland and took the virus home with him, transmitting it to two schoolchildren in his home over the weekend of September 10-11. Both children were reportedly contagious at school last week, so there is a high likelihood that other children and parents associated with the school have caught the virus.
This is why the region was subjected to its own level 4 restrictions for five days. This will allow time for testing and contact tracing to establish how far the virus has spread there.
A more worrying possibility would be if the prisoner were infected in WhakatÄ«wai by a member of his family. This could mean that other cases have remained in the community for some time. Whole genome sequencing and testing in the community should tell us quickly if this is the case.
Where from here
If this outbreak cannot be cleared below level 3, Auckland is unlikely to be able to return to level 2 for some time. The longer the epidemic lasts, the greater the risk of flight out of Auckland. This could send the whole country back to stricter alert levels while we complete the vaccination rollout, which is still months away.
In Auckland, over 70% received their first dose, but many still need their second. If there is a sustained growth in cases over the next fortnight, the only real option would be to go back to level 4 for a while to protect our healthcare system.
The Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales are currently in this situation with cases straining their health systems. With no real prospect of elimination, they are now almost guaranteed to be under restrictions for several months.
Read more: Whitewash in the age of COVID: Australian health services still leave vulnerable communities behind
Whenever the government reduces alert levels, it transfers some of the responsibility for managing the outbreak to the public. There will certainly be some relief from the easing of restrictions for some. But it is necessary to take advantage of the small additional freedoms that level 3 brings in a responsible way.
The fastest way out of lockdown is to wipe out this outbreak – and that relies on everyone continuing to stick to their bubble.