The Covid-19 cluster linked to Papatoetoe High School emerges as the first batch of vaccines arrived on our shores. A number of people now are calling for jabs for the community to be expedited.
Phil Goff has called for Auckland to be prioritised in the public rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine. “As the gateway city to New Zealand, and with 18 quarantine facilities – significantly more than the rest of the country combined – Auckland carries the burden of risk on behalf of the country,” said the mayor. But one part of the supercity is more of a gateway than the rest: South Auckland.
Auckland International Airport and the Jet Park quarantine facility are both in the South Auckland suburb of Mangere. Since the Valentine’s Day cluster emerged two weeks ago, 15 South Aucklanders have tested positive for Covid-19.
Dr Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, said South Auckland residents are currently more at risk than many other New Zealanders because of the possibility of community transmission. “Anywhere we’ve got border control has a higher risk of transmission,” she said.
However, this may not mean communities near border control – like Māngere or Papatoetoe – will be first in line for the Covid-19 vaccine. “It depends on how much vaccine we can get in,” said Turner. “I think all of us would like to see Counties [Manukau] vaccinated, but it would be dependent on having enough supply.”
There are currently 136,00 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine in the country, and 450,000 are expected by the end of March. “The more we vaccinate the border staff, the more we hope the cases are less likely to cross [over to the public].”
This week the household contacts of border workers will begin receiving the vaccine; that equates to around 50,000 people. Frontline non-border health workers, like general practice doctors and nurses, will be next. There are about 57,000 of these people, and there are already teething problems in getting the doses lined up.
Several South Auckland GPs have reported they were refused doses of the Pfizer vaccine set to expire, as the DHB was prioritising its own staff members. College of General Practitioners president Samantha Murton told RNZ yesterday morning the decision was “soul-destroying”. Later, she said the CGP would be working with the DHB to ensure some future leftover doses go to GP and urgent care workers.
Dr Rhys Jones, a public health physician and senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, said more needs to be done to protect the residents and workers of these suburbs. “South Auckland is at the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic in this country,” he said. “I absolutely support calls for South Auckland to be prioritised in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout,” he said.
“We need to see the vaccine programme as being about protecting communities, not as an individual prevention measure.”
The Counties Manukau DHB reports a population that’s 15.7% Māori and 21.1% Pacific; both higher than the national average. “Māori have 2.5 times greater odds of being hospitalised following Covid-19 infection than non-Māori, non-Pacific people, after controlling for other factors,” Jones said. “Pacific people have three times greater odds.”
Turner said vaccination plans need to be flexible. “There are two different issues around the vaccination plan: one is protecting those who are at highest risk, and the other is protecting those who are more likely to be in contact with Covid-19. They’re two different strategies, and I think New Zealand needs a bit of both.
“Who are our people who need to be protected most urgently, and on the other side where are we more likely to see Covid-19?”
Auckland in general is at greater risk than other parts of the country, but the more than 450,000 people living in South Auckland have that risk heightened not just by proximity to the border. There are also social and economic problems that make fighting Covid-19 more difficult.
“There is a higher incidence of risk factors for spread of infectious diseases, including social deprivation and household crowding,” said Jones. “In addition, because of poorer access to health care in some communities, there is a higher likelihood of undetected outbreaks that could lead to large numbers of people being exposed to the virus.”
“It is a bit worrying,” said Turner of the recent cluster. “But we’re not out of control. We don’t have widespread transmission like in other countries. We have to calm down a bit.”
On Sunday’s Q+A, National Party leader Judith Collins said she supported prioritising vaccinations in South Auckland. “We need to understand that without judging where people live or who works where, it is clear we have higher density homes in parts of South Auckland in particular,” she said. “We also have a lot of people in South Auckland who work in border facilities, rest homes and elsewhere. We need to be realistic here and we need to say South Auckland does need something special, and that happens to be vaccinations. And then we can roll out around the rest of the country.”
Auckland councillor Efeso Collins has also been outspoken in his support for a South Auckland vaccine roll out, prompting some to call for his excommunication from his church.