A focus on science, combined with public health expertise and community involvement, has protected the majority of New Zealand communities from Covid-19 so far, the Associate Minister of Health says.
Dr Ayesha Verrall also credits “our aunties, principals, rugby coaches and pastors” and managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) workers with helping to protect people.
According to Johns Hopkins University figures, the virus has killed more than five million people around the world.
On December 3, New Zealand shifted from aiming to eliminate Covid-19 to trying to minimise its prevalence, and protect people and the health system.
The Associate Minister spoke about Lessons from New Zealand’s Covid-19 response and opportunities for the future at the University of Otago 2021 State of Public Health Lecture in Dunedin on November 26.
She said the country’s elimination strategy had protected the majority of communities for more than 18 months.
From the start of the pandemic until the Auckland Delta outbreak, 26 people had died from Covid-19 in New Zealand, out of 2517 cases. She said compared with countries which had experienced lengthy lockdowns, high death rates and strained health systems, Kiwis had enjoyed relative freedoms.
As the Delta variant emerged in Auckland in August this year, the situation changed. Ministry of Health December 2 figures show 44 people with Covid-19 have died, out of 11,895 cases.
Dr Verrall gave four reasons for New Zealand’s relative “success”, saying these lessons are useful as the country adopts its new Covid-19 Protection Framework.
The first was the role of science, including a critical mass of technical expertise at the Ministry and the ability to learn from local and international experts, scientific literature and modelling.
“The centrality of science to our Covid-19 response is undoubtedly a reason for the good outcomes New Zealand has enjoyed.”
One of the challenges was being able to plan ahead. As circumstances changed, the Government and experts had needed to adapt.
Another vital lesson from this pandemic, is the need to build strong public health systems. In fact, we need to build public health systems as if our lives depended on them – because they do.”
Dr Verrall gave the example of the national contact tracing system, developed to connect Covid-19 case and contact data. Early in this year’s August outbreak, this system was actively managing 30,000 contacts.
“Collectively these measures meant we have been able to contact trace at an industrial scale.”
A third lesson learned from the pandemic was the need to work hand-in-hand with communities, using their local knowledge and expertise.
“We’ve seen this in our vaccine roll-out. We have had to work carefully with communities to overcome barriers to access, but also to build up trust in a vaccine that has been subject to misinformation.”
She said Māori and Pacific health providers had been “stars” of the vaccine roll-out, door-knocking and administering the vaccine in workplaces, places of worship, sports and recreation grounds.
During this October’s mass vaccination drive called Super Saturday, more than 2.5 percent of the population was vaccinated in one day.
“We unleashed the power of our aunties, principals, rugby coaches and pastors to protect our people,” she said.
In a short time, the percentage of Māori vaccinated with their first dose had increased from the mid-50s to 80 per cent. Of Pasifika peoples, 90 per cent have received a first dose and 80 per cent are fully vaccinated.
The fourth lesson learned was the value of government ministries, district health boards and the Defence Force collaborating, such as to operate MIQ facilities to prevent widespread community transmission of the virus.
“The MIQ workforce – nurses, hotel staff, defence and security guards, cooks and cleaners – can claim a large share of the responsibility for the exceptional public health outcomes we have enjoyed during the pandemic.”
Dr Verrall said tools which were effective against the original Covid-19 variant have not been as effective against the Delta variant.
Delta’s reproduction value is twice as high and the variant has a shorter incubation period and has gained a foothold in vulnerable communities, she said.
The variant was “impossible” to eliminate and so the country was shifting to the Protection Framework. The goal was to minimise the prevalence of the virus and protect people and the health system.
The Associate Minister outlined the foundations of this framework and how the Government could apply the pandemic lessons learned as it restructured the health system.
Dr Verrall was in familiar territory in Dunedin. The Southlander completed undergraduate and doctoral studies at the University of Otago and was its students’ association president in 2001.
She is an infectious diseases specialist and was elected to Parliament in October last year.
About 50 masked, physically-distanced people attended the public lecture and about 115 watched live on the internet.
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For further information:
Ministry of Health information about Covid-19 cases in New Zealand
Johns Hopkins University global map of Covid-19 cases
Otago Daily Times story about the Government’s preparedness for Delta