Wellington Scoop

Red or orange but not yet green

by Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Epidemiologist, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington
The key issue with the new traffic light system is that it’s designed around incentivising New Zealanders to get vaccinated. It’s significantly underpowered for meaningful prevention of Covid-19 outbreaks. That’s a major and concerning gap in our pandemic response just now as we await further information on the omicron variant.

What is needed now is a system that’s centred on protecting health and wellbeing and is informed at every level by the science of preventing airborne transmission. We can control Covid-19 if we choose to. Our Covid response system should protect both vaccinated and unvaccinated, including children, and it should be explicitly designed to be equitable and to uphold Te Tiriti. Only a system built in that way from first principles will be able to adapt to whatever the pandemic throws up next.

We’d be in a far better place today with something like the Alert Levels upgrade that my colleagues and I proposed earlier this year. It’s designed to be future-proof so that it can protect against new Covid-19 variants, fading vaccine protection, the unpredictable return of familiar infections, and the next pandemic that may be just around the corner. We need well-designed legacy infrastructure that can navigate us safely through the pandemic and provide enduring protection against future threats.

It’s exhausting and inefficient for the Government to have to wrestle with a succession of quick-fix policies that need to be revised the moment there’s a new development in the pandemic.

by Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury

The government is taking a district-by-district approach to the new traffic light system, based on a combination of vaccine coverage, transmission rates, and potential health impact. Parts of the North Island that are battling active outbreaks or have low vaccination rates will start at red. This will mean things will continue to feel similar to level 2 for people who are fully vaccinated, but life will be more restricted for unvaccinated people.

The lower North Island and all of the South Island will start at orange. This will effectively remove gathering size limits provided vaccine passes are used, although masks will still be required. Areas moving to orange generally have reasonable vaccination rates and don’t have established community outbreaks. The big exception to this is that most of Waikato is set to move to orange despite a stubborn outbreak including ongoing unlinked cases and low vaccination rates in some areas. The decision to allow looser restrictions in these areas increases the risk of superspreading events fuelling this outbreak.

The government has moved to the new traffic light system nationally earlier than it originally promised, which was when all DHBs had fully vaccinated 90 per cent of their eligible populations. This has been justified in part by the additional protections offered by the use of vaccine passes. However, in moving to the new system we must not lose sight of the fact that we still have big gaps in our vaccine coverage. The virus will find and exploit these gaps so we must redouble our efforts to fill them.

First published by the Science Media Centre

Content Sourced from scoop.co.nz
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  1. K, 30. November 2021, 10:53

    Was in a pharmacy yesterday afternoon for about 20 minutes. Staff were absolutely slammed by two decidedly different groups of people: Young people (under 30s) getting their 2nd Jab and older people (60+) getting their vaccine passes confirmed & printed out. The “stick” tactic is already working, wouldn’t be surprised to see a big jump in vaccine rates this week across the country.

  2. Richard Keller, 3. December 2021, 21:45

    Thanks, Dr Kvalsvig. “The key issue with the new traffic light system is that it’s designed around incentivising New Zealanders to get vaccinated. It’s significantly underpowered for meaningful prevention of Covid-19 outbreaks.”

    So right. You could also say the traffic light system shows a higher priority on the politics of liberating Aucklanders than on adopting the best components for controlling the virus. I’ve been expecting to feel less safe under the traffic light system because it leaves out some of the original aspects of control, like crowd numbers and physical distancing, so I have been very conservative in my movements. I guess we are about to find out how much spread and growth in cases there will be.

  3. TrevorH, 4. December 2021, 7:35

    Where are the rapid antigen and saliva testing kits? They were recommended by the Simpson-Roche review more than a year ago and would make a huge contribution to keeping people safe. The failure to make them easily available is incomprehensible.

  4. TrevorH, 4. December 2021, 8:48

    Is it really true that you can be fined up to $12,000 or imprisoned for six months if you fail to verify the vaccine status of friends and family arriving for Christmas Dinner, as is claimed in Stuff here. Quite an incentive!

  5. greenwelly, 4. December 2021, 12:38

    Trevor. The Health Minister Andrew Little is of the opinion you could be prosecuted (and under health orders it’s the Ministry of Health that takes the prosecution):
    Little said people choosing to host gatherings where the number of guests means vaccine passes are required will need to police that themselves… “If there is an outbreak and it’s traced back to your party and the question is asked about you, then you could be liable for an infringement if you haven’t enforced that rule.”

  6. TrevorH, 4. December 2021, 18:59

    Greenwelly: for an offence bearing penalties as severe as these, I would expect clear guidelines as to what constitutes the crime. If neighbours reported my Christmas Dinner to the Police, I would like to know where I stood if I neglected to verify a relative’s QR code.

  7. Dave B, 7. December 2021, 11:21

    The real crux is this: Have we enough hospital facilities and staff to cope with a major outbreak if it happens? And will this outbreak be primarily among the unvaccinated? If so, what will be the prioritisation of hospital admissions if facilities become overwhelmed? Will unvaccinated Covid sufferers displace other patients with less-urgent though equally life-impacting requirements? If so, how ethical is this?
    Should separate facilities be set up for the unvaccinated, like the sanatoriums-of-old which were set up for sufferers of other contagious diseases before treatments and vaccines became available?