Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for September 12. Auckland is currently at alert level four, the rest of NZ level two. Our coverage of the Covid response depends on members’ contributions. Click here to learn more.
The day’s big news lines
- 20 new community cases of Covid-19 were reported.
- There are current 34 unlinked (or “mystery”) cases and three of the 16 subclusters are of particular concern.
- A deal with Denmark will see 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine shipped to New Zealand.
- An Auckland couple face prosecution after quitting Auckland and heading to their holiday home in Wanaka.
8.00pm: Auckland hits 1.5 million vaccine doses after bumper weekend
Let’s finish the day with some good news: with 74,000 doses administered since Friday, Auckland has now surpassed 1.5 million doses in total, with just over a million of those first doses. The last three days have seen 14,000 doses received at the big vaccination bases, the Airport Park and Ride and Trusts Arena.
Those two sites were now open to people without an appointment. “We want these sites to continue to be busy to ensure everyone is vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Northern Region Health Coordination Centre clinical director Anthony Jordan. “If people would prefer to go to our community vaccination centres, GPs and pharmacies they also have bookings available. Across our sites we have ongoing availability this week at the Otara, Takanini, Auckland CBD, Epsom and Tamaki Vaccination Centres and we would encourage people to book into these sites by going to bookmyvaccine.nz.”
Earlier today Jacinda Ardern announced the purchase of 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Denmark (see 1.30pm).
2.10pm: Auckland couple to be charged after flying to Wanaka holiday home
Police will prosecute an Auckland couple who crossed the level four border with essential worker exemptions, drove to Hamilton Airport and flew to their holiday home in Wanaka. “This calculated and deliberate flouting of the alert level four restrictions is completely unacceptable and will be extremely upsetting to all those who are working hard and making great sacrifices in order to stamp out Covid in our community,” said a Police spokesperson in a statement. “The couple – a 26-year-old woman and 35-year-old man – will be prosecuted for breaching the current Health Order, by failing to return to their place of residence within the alert level four area after leaving for approved essential personal movement.”
Meanwhile while traffic volumes are low, a “a small number of disappointing incidents have occurred at Auckland’s southern boundary in recent days”. At last count, 67 people in Auckland have been charged with a total of 71 offences relating to breaches, according to the statement. There have been 158 people formal warnings.
2.00pm: The delta outbreak in chart form
1.30pm: New vaccine stocks secured
New Zealand has secured a new acquisition of vaccine stocks, purchasing 500,000 Pfizer doses from Denmark. The first shipment will arrive in the middle of the coming week, Jacinda Ardern has announced.
This procurement is on top of the 250,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine which arrived in Auckland from Spain, after the government secured a deal with Madrid.
The purchases combined "leave us in the strongest position possible to vaccinate New Zealanders at pace, to protect our population and begin to move beyond life with tough Covid restrictions", said Ardern. She urged everyone who can in Auckland to go and get vaccinated immediately, saying there was capacity at both the drive-through site near the airport and the Henderson vaccination centre.
1.15pm: 20 new community cases, all in Auckland
There are 20 new community cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, Ashley Bloomfield has announced. As it stands there are 34 "unlinked" cases; eight of those are from today's newly reported cases. There are 18 people in hospital with Covid; four are in intensive care. One of those is someone who presented to Middlemore today.
The outbreak comprises 16 subclusters, said Bloomfield. In three of those there is concern about spread from beyond households. These are the subject for "intensive followup", he said. Of yesterday's 23 cases, 10 were infectious in the community, with more than 40 exposure events between them. Bloomfield said another 50 cases could be expected in close contacts who are yet to return day 12 tests.
To date all staff and patients who have been tested as contacts at Middlemore Hospital have tested negative, he said. Some good news in relation to the person who tested positive at Middlemore last week after being admitted to a ward. He (and nine family members who also tested positive) have now been clearly linked to the outbreak.
The last 24 hours have seen 10,958 tests taken. Yesterday saw 61,810 doses of the vaccine administered. There are now 2,841,961 people who have had at least one dose; of those 1,449,311 have had both doses.
The higher numbers in recent days were "not a sign of failure", said Jacinda Ardern. Delta presented a different challenge, but could still be eliminated. "We still know where the vast majority of our cases are coming from," she said, and there was "general control".
Ardern would not be drawn on the question of tomorrow's alert level decision. “There is no widespread community transmission in Auckland," said Bloomfield. But, "we're assuming there may be other undetected cases", he said. And: "The ongoing public health risk of the transmissible delta variant is high at the moment in Auckland."
12.10pm: Self-pawtraits with Toby Morris
Yesterday morning the Spinoff's resident genius Toby Morris held a drawing class on Instagram, Sketchin' In, showing us how to draw ourselves as dogs. Readers young and old have been sending us their sketches since, brightening up the inbox. It's not too late to have a go yourself. Watch the video here.
Meanwhile, because it's Sunday, and the sun is out in level-four Auckland, I thought I'd share something I've been doing with my kids to make lockdown walks more diverting in recent days: a sightline scavenger hunt, in which you have to lay eyes on as many of the list of 20 things within an hour. Like, you know, a number plate on a white car that has digits adding to 15. Three versions are in this doc.
11.00am: The saliva stoush
One area in which the response to Covid in New Zealand has faced consistent criticism, and with good reason, is the pace at which saliva testing has been introduced. As reported by Dileepa Fonseka for Stuff, the head of a company contracted by the government to deliver saliva testing for border workers seems to be struggling with some of the criticism. Anoop Singh has taken aim at "overseas scientists" questioning Asia Pacific Healthcare Group’s saliva test and its rollout. “We don’t have overseas research scientists giving validation [to our test] and I’m referring to Anne Wyllie who keeps coming up and taking an interest in New Zealand," he said. "Saliva is not some magic test that suddenly has appeared that needs a new way of doing things ... Who is Anne Wyllie? She’s a research scientist sitting in the US on some university campus. How is she qualified?”
Who is Anne Wyllie, then? She's a New Zealander who has been called the "spit queen" in recognition of her work as a research scientist at Yale University. Her team developed an open-access saliva-based PCR test that has got real traction (metaphorically speaking). And she has no financial interest in the product, Saliva Direct.
Dileepa's piece is fascinating. You can read it here.
APHG, I am sorry if I hit a nerve. However, NZ has worked so incredibly hard in a remarkable team effort towards Zero COVID. I am actually correct when I say that not all swab-based methods work for saliva. NZ deserves robust testing methods free from business & political agendas
— Anne Wyllie (@awyllie13) September 11, 2021
10.30am: New locations of interest
A couple of new listings on the Ministry of Health's locations of interest page this morning: for PakN’Save supermarkets in Manukau and Botany. If you live in Auckland and haven't checked in on the locations of interest updates for a few days, the best place to look is the interactive maps from our data boss, Harkwanal Singh. Find them here.
Here's a glance at the timing of the locations of interest over recent days:
10.15am: Strong day of vaccination in Auckland
Some very welcome good news: More than 26,000 people received a dose of the vaccine in level-four Auckland yesterday, suggesting rates are holding up, RNZ reports. That included more than 4,300 at the Auckland Airport Park and Ride site and almost 1,800 at he Tongan drive-through centre.
"We have capacity at many of our sites," said Auckland Vaccine Programme director Matt Hannant. "We encourage people to come along to the drive through at Auckland Airport for their vaccination, and they are welcome to bring whānau over 12 years old to be vaccinated. No booking required."
Mayor Phil Goff said the numbers gave him hope. "If we can keep that progress up and get up towards the 80% mark of vaccinations, that's the best protection we can get against the community spread of this virus," he told RNZ. But he warned Aucklanders against expecting to move an alert level on Tuesday night. "It looks likely that there may be a further delay in coming out of alert level four. But really there's no alternative if we want to stamp out the transmission. We've made the sacrifice now for nearly four weeks and we need to stay the course."
9.30am: Can Auckland move to level three?
Tomorrow cabinet meets to consider Auckland's lockdown status. The likelihood of a decision to drop an alert level? "Very low." That's the assessment of economist and modeller Rodney Jones, speaking to Jack Tame on Q+A this morning. "Yesterday was a tough day. I personally was gutted to see those numbers so close to decision day and the news overnight of those unlinked infections at Middlemore [see 7am]. So there's a tough challenge ahead of us."
He added: "The difficulty is we have these consistent background cases that we don't know where they come from. The concern is in the background there's a level of infection we can't get our arms around. Elimination has been successful for New Zealand. But delta just behaves in ways that is hard to model ... Each country has struggled with, if you don't get your arms around it."
"Elimination has worked for us, we can't give it up," he urged. But there was a "non zero risk", he said, that the freedoms New Zealand has enjoyed would need to be swapped for routine mask usage and other measures. "It means a lower level of activity, it means more restrictions; that freedom we've enjoyed so much, we may not get back to that point. We hope we do still today, we still hope. But we have to start imagining a world where we don't."
Jones also stressed how the impacts of the pandemic fall unequally: the result of long-standing inequities in the health system.
Meanwhile Q+A reported that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was working on a "proof of vaccination system for domestic use in New Zealand". For more on what are colloquially known as "vaccine passports", and the international version being worked on by the government, Justin Giovannetti has you covered here.
8.30am: Jane Campion named best director at Venice
The acclaimed New Zealand film-maker Jane Campion has just been awarded the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival. Campion won the prize for The Power of the Dog, a western based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. Campion and Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars as a Montana Rancher, talk about shooting the film in Otago last year in this excellent Hollywood Reporter feature published in the last few days.
"A brawny, brooding drama about the wreckage caused by men", the Netflix-bound Power of the Dog marks Campaign's first feature since Bright Star in 2009, notes the Guardian review. And it's "so confident and well-textured it reminds us what we’ve been missing".
7.30am: An aberration or a trend?
Even before the late-breaking news about new Middlemore-linked cases (see 7am update), the Covid news yesterday was sombre. After a steady slope downwards, with the previous three days running 15, 13, and 11, the reported new cases in Auckland's delta outbreak leapt to 23. It could be anomalous. We'll find out today at 1pm. The scheduled press conference will see Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield reveal the latest case numbers, while both the prime minister and the director general of health are bound to face questions both about the Middlemore cases and what the numbers mean for the next alert level decision.
That decision will be made tomorrow at cabinet. Will Auckland drop to level three or see the level four lockdown extended? There are two numbers that are more important than the new case count, First, the "mystery cases"; in yesterday's update (so before last night's developments) there were 36 "unlinked" cases, up from 29. Second, there's the number of cases that are assessed as "infectious in the community", or have potential exposure events. That might be as simple as a visit to a dairy or a supermarket, but still, it presents a risk factor. We get that number a day later than the new case tally. So we'll find out today how many of those 23 cases were infectious in the community. But to get a sense of how we're doing on that front, the people with "exposure of events" among new cases in the seven days to Friday reads like this: 6, 5, 4, 5, 6, 1, and 11.
7.00am: Three new cases linked to Middlemore Hospital
Shortly before 9pm last night a Ministry of Health media release brought troubling news: three new positive cases in recent visitors to Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, including a five-month-old baby.
One of the new cases is a woman who "developing symptoms post-discharge" from Middlemore Hospital’s Birthing and Assessment Unit on Wednesday, "following a routine form of antenatal assessment", according to the ministry statement. "She developed symptoms the following day and after receiving health advice from her midwife, underwent a Covid-19 test which returned the positive result." She has now moved to a managed isolation facility.
"During her time at the birthing unit, the woman was asymptomatic and had answered no to screening contact questions – indicating she had had no exposure to Covid-19, no symptoms of Covid-19, nor had been at any location of interest," continues the statement. "As the woman was at the birthing unit within a 48-hour window prior to developing symptoms, the Auckland Regional Public Health Service has deemed that some staff members and patients are considered contacts. Counties Manukau DHB is in the process of establishing how many patients will be deemed contacts and will contact them to ensure they are informed and able to isolate safely."
The other two cases are a parent and their five-month-old baby who arrived at Middlemore Hospital’s Kidz First Emergency Department yesterday afternoon.
"The parent answered negative to screening contact questions – indicating they had had no exposure to Covid-19, nor having been at any location of interest. However, the child was identified as being symptomatic by clinical staff in triage. As such the child was managed under Middlemore Hospital’s Covid pathways, which is in place for all Covid-suspect patients. Part of this process includes undergoing a Covid swab. As a hospital admission for the presentation was not required, the parent and their child were discharged and advised to isolate at home.'
No staff are being required to stand because they were "wearing the appropriate PPE, including N95 masks and goggles ... In line with COVID-19 guidelines, all presentations to ED are socially distanced and adults are required to wear a mask. However, out of an abundance of caution, ARPHS is investigating five potential contacts."
In recent days two other people linked to the hospital have tested positive. The first was a man who was admitted to a ward with other patients on the basis of abdominal pain, which was deemed unrelated to Covid. He later tested positive. Around 150 patients and staff deemed possible contacts have returned negative day-three tests.
The other case involves a woman who went to ED for non-Covid-related reasons. She took a test but self-discharged before the results were back. Seven police officers interacted with her, according to the Ministry of Health. At last report public health authorities had not established a link to known cases.