Far North community leaders and authorities are bracing for a potential Covid-19 Delta outbreak in the region following last week's confirmation of a positive case in Whangārei.
The community is on tenterhooks following the Government's announcement to shift Northland to alert level 3 last Friday, with little information available regarding locations of interest connected to the positive case.
Since then the Ministry of Health has released locations of interest for Northland in Whangārei, Paihia, Onerahi and Kawakawa and asked anyone who had visited those areas between Saturday, October 2 and Wednesday, October 6 to get tested for the virus.
Yesterday the Ministry of Health put out a statement confirming whole-genome sequencing for the Auckland case who travelled to Northland had been completed on the initial sample, confirming the case was linked to the Auckland outbreak.
It said due to sample quality limitations, whole genome sequencing could not link the case to a specific cluster, however, resampling had been undertaken and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) was working to improve the data quality of additional sequencing.
The case remains in an Auckland quarantine facility.
A second person who is thought to have travelled with this case has been contacted but not yet located.
The case was under investigation after returning a weak positive result from a test in Whangārei earlier last week and Friday returned a positive test result in Auckland.
The Ministry of Health said public health staff were continuing to work closely with the person to determine any locations of interest or exposure events associated with the case.
There are currently 21 close contacts associated with this case, with the household of the case and travel companion included in this number.
MOH said as more locations of interest became available, they would be added to the ministry's website as quickly as possible.
"We ask people to check these regularly, especially if you have visited, or live in Auckland, Waikato or Northland," it said.
"Anyone in Northland should remain vigilant for symptoms, particularly anyone who has visited a location of interest or been in an area of interest at the times specified should get tested and isolate until they receive the result."
In alignment with alert level 3 travel restrictions, New Zealand Police and Taitokerau Border Control are currently out in force, travelling around the region to check drivers coming into Northland and to assist with questions around travel.
A statement from NZ Police confirmed police would continue to be highly visible across Northland during alert level 3.
Northland Police Inspector Chris McLellan added police were committed to continuing a proactive approach to ensure compliance in alert level 3 and said iwi and communities could have confidence in the work they were doing.
"Police and iwi are coming to this kaupapa from the same place – we all want to keep our whānau and communities safe given the greater risk posed with the Delta variant," McLellan said.
"Travel in alert level 3 is limited to essential travel only and our Auckland Police colleagues remain on their northern border and will continue to check people attempting to travel to Northland have valid reasons and supporting documentation.
"Police, supported by Aviation Security, will also be conducting checks at Kerikeri Airport and Whangarei Airport.
"We reiterate the advice of health professionals which is to stay home if you are feeling unwell and to seek advice from your GP or Healthline around getting tested."
Taitokerau Border Control's Tiriti Harrison was out yesterday with his team, assisting police with checks along State Highway 10 near Awanui.
He said their mahi (work) was important to help keep the community safe.
"We're out here working with New Zealand Police to help strengthen and build upon that partnership for the benefit of the wider community," Harrison said.
"This is all about keeping our people safe and offering support where it's needed.
"The feedback from the majority of people we speak to coming through has been positive and they understand why we're out here doing what we're doing."
Expert says expect Covid-19 to come by Christmas
Last week University of Otago professor and epidemiologist Michael Baker said all New Zealanders should plan to encounter the virus in the next couple of months and to act accordingly, with an emphasis on getting vaccinated.
With the Far North heralding some of the lowest vaccination rates, particularly amongst Māori, the news was a sobering reminder to act now.
According to the latest data from Northland DHB, a total of 188,382 doses had been administered across Northland to date, comprising 110,446 first doses and 77,936 second doses.
While there has been an increase in numbers over the last few days, Māori health providers warned pressuring or trying to coerce Māori to get vaccinated was not conducive to seeing an increased uptake of the vaccine.
Whakawhiti Ora Pai general manager and Te Aupōuri leader Errol Murray said leadership, supporting and encouraging whānau to get vaccinated was the best approach moving forward.
"I believe we need to stop working under the pressure and expectation placed on us by experts and the authorities," Murray said.
"As leaders in the community, we fully appreciate and understand the urgency of getting our whānau Māori vaccinated, but it may be we're in for a middle distance race, rather than a sprint, and that's alright as we need to take our people with us.
"Right now we are carrying out vaccinations, and testing and working as a collective and united leadership across key stakeholders.
"We will ensure that we have our Te Hiku Delta response plan and that it is flexible enough to allow us to amend it accordingly."
Te Hiku Iwi Development Trust CEO Carol Berghan is part of the group currently working to devise a Te Hiku Delta Response plan for the region.
She said the plan needed to be locally led and driven, where iwi and community leaders worked together rather than being directed by various government agencies about what to do in their community.
"Those discussions need to be had now and with the right mix of agencies," Bergan said.
'Don't tell us no, tell us how and let's work together because nobody protects our whānau better than us.
"Give our whānau all they need to know so we can face this crisis together.
"Our response and planning rely on good information and a range of options to start educating whānau to self-isolate.
"Give them the facts, not fears. Our communities can do this, and we will come out the other side with the best results because together, we can."
Far North mayor John Carter said he strongly encouraged all eligible people to get vaccinated as soon as possible, not only to protect their own health but the health of their loved ones.
"The Ministry of Health and Northland District Health Board are responsible for leading the public health response to any outbreak of Delta in Northland," he said.
"However, the region's councils meet weekly with government agencies, iwi leaders and members of the business community to discuss and plan our response to any outbreak.
"Get vaccinated and get tested if you have symptoms of Covid-19. I cannot stress enough how important this is now that the Government is aiming to suppress, rather than eliminate, Covid-19.
"It is a credit to the police working around the clock at Northland's border that only one person in Northland has tested positive for Covid-19 since the Delta outbreak nearly two months ago.
"We also need to remember that regional borders are just one line of defence against Covid-19.
"Getting as many people as possible vaccinated, maintaining physical distancing, wearing masks in public and stepping up testing is our best defence against the highly infectious Delta strain.
"None of us wants to see Northland residents hospitalised or die because of Covid-19, nor do we want to spend our Christmas in lockdown. Get vaccinated now."