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The weekend's Super Saturday "vaxathon" has inched Auckland closer to a double-dose milestone of 90 per cent - but a Covid-19 modeller still warns the city risks facing months longer in lockdown without an urgent circuit-breaker.
And director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has warned that Covid cases will continue to rise and that Auckland's border will need to stay in place until the rest of the country's vaccination rates also climb. It comes as Cabinet meets today to decide on alert levels for Auckland, Northland and Waikato.
A total 9039 first jabs were administered across Auckland on Saturday, along with 32,042 second doses, amid the nationwide vaccination push.
A shortfall of 20,360 vaccinations left Auckland "tantalisingly close" to the region reaching the 90 per cent mark for first doses, Bloomfield said.
Auckland's Covid cases, though, "will keep increasing", Bloomfield said.
Even though growth in case numbers dipped over the weekend, Bloomfield said the R value was between 1.2 and 1.3 which means cases will continue to climb.
The R value (or reproduction rate) is the number of people which each case passes the virus on to.
Bloomfield told Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB that he was pleased with 130,000 vaccines going out on Saturday.
It's nearly 1 per cent of the eligible population however they would continue to vaccinate.
The first jab rates were very high and a bit slower than expected but they were still going up.
As for Melbourne and Sydney opening up at 70 and 80 per cent, Bloomfield said they were in a different position and NZ was aiming to have a higher vaccination rate.
Their rates were still coming down and hospitalisation rates weren't going up, however Bloomfield said that was because people were vaccinated.
The best way to stop people ending up in hospital was to get people vaccinated and didn't want hundreds and hundreds of cases.
Asked what mattered if someone tested positive, Bloomfield said it was more likely they would end up in hospital.
Hosking said hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne were not being overwhelmed. However, Bloomfield said they were still under pressure.
Asked about Northland, Bloomfield said they hadn't seen any cases in the next few days which was good but they still weren't clear where they had been.
Bloomfield said Waikato was "interesting" in regards to its moving alert levels especially with cases at the weekend but he had already passed on his advice to Cabinet which would meet to discuss the options this morning.
The 90 per cent was a figure that Bloomfield had given, he said a first jab was a good milestone but he preferred to get people fully vaccinated.
He said they had MyCovid record announced last week that had a QR code that could be used and an international pass and would be available late November.
With the new traffic light system, there was framework happening and that would be announced this afternoon.
Bloomfield told RNZ that current modelling shows it will take Auckland just over a month before 90 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.
Just over 70 per cent of the region is fully vaccinated now with close to 90 per cent having had one dose.
The Auckland border will need to remain in place until vaccination rates improve in other parts of the country as well, he told RNZ.
Bloomfield told TVNZ's Breakfast he thought New Zealand was still doing "really well" in comparison to other countries, including Australia, but more work needs to be done.
He acknowledged that Super Saturday's event had seen many people who had been on the fence about vaccination finally come out to get their first jab.
Bloomfield said community leaders and community health providers in the Pacific and Māori promoting vaccination had helped hugely in boosting vaccinations in those communities over the weekend.
Put to him the idea of a level 4 circuit-breaker in Auckland, Bloomfield said that was something that had been proposed by a number of people.
"It's something that we've actively considered and importantly, I've asked for advice from my team.
"But also from the public health teams on the ground in Tāmaki Makaurau and that's informed our advice to the Prime Minister.
"And Cabinet will be considering that this afternoon."
He said he would not go into any more detail about that particular aspect until Cabinet met and ultimately announced a decision later this afternoon.
Speaking about the large party held on Auckland's North Shore on Saturday night, breaching lockdown restrictions, he said although he was disappointed, it would be more disappointed for Aucklanders who had done the hard yards over the last two months.
He had a message for those people breaking lockdown rules.
"To those who are doing those things - just don't.
"It's not going to help and it's not going to help Auckland come down out of the alert level 3 restrictions sooner."
Today's alert level decision
Ministers have a three-pronged decision on their hands when they meet at Cabinet today, with alert level restrictions in Northland, Auckland, and the Waikato set to be reviewed.
Experts say change is unlikely in Auckland and the Waikato, with cases teetering on the edge of dangerous growth rates. Northland, however, appears to have the outbreak contained and could possibly have lockdown restrictions eased, moving to level 2.
Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said that, once Auckland reached the point where 90 per cent of its over-12 population had been vaccinated, hard restrictions like level 3 could be eased.
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"But all of this is contingent on having low case numbers, because it assumes that we can stay in the game with contact tracing," he said.
"At the moment, I think the number of unlinked cases we are seeing means that contact tracers are really under the pump, and can't sustain what they're doing for much longer.
"Ideally, if we'd had that 90 per cent double-dose level for two weeks, and we had the ability to contact trace, we could get to that situation where we don't have to rely on lockdowns."
As at Sunday, Auckland's coverage for full vaccination stood at 1,013,594 people - or 71 per cent of the eligible population.
All the while, experts have warned daily case counts have been growing on a trajectory where the number of new cases was doubling around every 12 days.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson has also warned cases will soon hit triple digits, with the number of daily cases expected to double by the end of this month.
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Concerningly, the Ministry of Health's public health director Dr Caroline McElnay last week revealed that just 170 to 180 new cases would put pressure on the contact tracing system.
The ministry has already stopped counting subclusters in Auckland because there were so many unlinked cases.
Hendy said New Zealand otherwise might have been well placed to move into a new stage of its pandemic response, if not for the worsening Delta outbreak.
"If you'd talked to me a few months ago, before this outbreak, I would have said New Zealand would be in a good position, because we could enter this next phase with low case numbers."
But when case numbers were high, he explained, public health systems like test-trace-quarantine couldn't operate well enough, which pushed the load for reducing cases back onto the public.
"The concern at the moment is we are possibly on the cusp of where our contact tracing and other targeted public health interventions will start to fall over."
Currently, the outbreak's effective reproduction number, measuring the average number of other infections that one case created, was estimated to be between 1.2 and 1.3.
"And if it tilts up to 1.4 or 1.5 - which it might, if some of our targeted public health interventions fall over - then we're talking months at level 3, to bring it down to where interventions can start really taking care of things again."
Because of that growing risk, Hendy and other experts have been pushing for a temporary jump back to level 4, which they say could stop the outbreak from growing much bigger, and buy time to get vaccination rates to where they needed to be.
The Government has signalled no appetite for such a move.
On Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the Herald that the primary source of growth in the outbreak wasn't in workplaces but households interacting under lockdown, which wasn't permitted under levels 3 or 4.
"So for us, it's about what will work, what makes a difference. And we'll keep asking our public health advisers for that advice and to date, they have not advised us to change the alert level."
Instead, the Government is poised to this week announce a new "traffic light" system, which incorporates vaccine certificates and is meant to replace alert levels when the population is highly vaccinated.
According to people familiar with a Zoom call in which the framework was presented, the general feedback was that it wasn't fit for purpose, and its usefulness was for a time when enough of the population was fully vaccinated - which could be months away.
Around 15 per cent of the country's eligible population still remained unvaccinated, putting them at higher risk of infection and of spreading the virus.
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker argued that, as things stood, there was no justification for easing restrictions in Auckland.
"I just think the Government needs to be following the modelling and evidence that it's commissioned," he said.
"We also need higher coverage of our most vulnerable - and at the moment, coverage is far too low among Māori and Pasifika."
Epidemiologist Professor Rod Jackson said Super Saturday's vaccination event was a success.
But officials now need to change tack in order to get up to 631,500 people aged 12 years and older who remain unvaccinated on board.
"Let's find out why they're not vaccinated. Let's help them over the line," he told TVNZ's Breakfast show.
"We really need a complete change in tack now."
Jackson said if those people remained unvaccinated, they would be "brutally" vaccinated with the virus at some point.
Many of those people did not trust the system, Jackson said.
So the people who those communities did trust - including doctors in those areas, community leaders and even gang leaders needed to step up in support of the vaccine.
Dr Rawiri Jansen, co-leader of the Māori pandemic response group Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, said Auckland was in trouble.
Speaking about the Government's announcement on alert levels update expected at 4pm, he acknowledged that the region needed to stay at the current level, at least, in order to fight the Covid outbreak.
"We haven't got this under control. We are seeing the average number of cases per day going up, we are seeing the number of people who are out in the community and positive - that's going up.
"I think we're in trouble in Auckland. I don't mean to ruin your Monday morning, but we've got some work to do on this outbreak and we shouldn't relax any of the controls.
"We should actually - we should go for a circuit-breaker."
Jackson reiterated that idea, saying Auckland needed to be in an alert level 3 plus.