AUCKLAND, New Zealand – When New Zealand reported a case of the coronavirus spreading to the community for the first time in months on August 17, residents took action. They cleared the supermarket shelves of pasta and toilet paper, dug masks out of drawers and fled to vacation homes in the mountains or to the beach.
Hours later came the expected announcement: the country would plunge into a highly restrictive three-day lockdown after a single case of the Delta variant. New Zealand, one of the last countries still pursuing “Covid Zero”, would aim to eliminate the virus again, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a press conference that day.
“While we know Delta is a more dangerous enemy,” she said, “the same measures that the virus took last year can be used to defeat it.”
Two weeks later, New Zealand is still in lockdown, which will last at least another 14 days. One case has grown to almost 700, and almost three dozen had to be hospitalized. And the well-known playbook, which has made New Zealand an envied model throughout the pandemic, is struggling to contain a much more contagious variant of the virus.
“The challenge is to eliminate Delta,” said Rodney Jones, an advisor to the New Zealand government on the pandemic. “No country eliminated Delta.”
For now, New Zealand seems almost united behind efforts to try, with high lockdown compliance and strong confidence in public health officials. But Ms. Ardern and other leaders have begun to recognize that New Zealand may have to change course at some point as the virus continues to spread – 75 new cases were reported on Wednesday, up from around 50 each on the previous two days – and its vaccination campaign is lagging.
That would mean tolerating some spread of the virus in order to keep society more open, a strategy pursued to varying degrees in almost every developed country.
While China has signaled a long-term commitment to a Covid-Zero approach, the Delta variant has already dumped virus elimination blueprints in Singapore, Hong Kong and several other locations in the Asia-Pacific region. New Zealand heads of state and government are paying close attention to neighboring Australia, where the state of New South Wales is now reporting more than 1,000 cases a day after a lockdown of almost two months.
As of July 2021, Australia hadn’t recorded a single Covid death and wiped out every small flare-up of infection. Now, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has disavowed the virus elimination approach altogether.
“Any state and territory that thinks they can somehow protect themselves from Covid forever with the Delta Tribe, that’s just absurd,” he said last week. “New Zealand cannot. They had an elimination strategy. You are in lockdown. “
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Australia is trying to vaccinate itself relatively safely, focusing on areas that are badly affected by the Delta variant. This option is not available to New Zealand, which has administered the fewest doses per capita of any industrialized country.
The country didn’t place its first vaccine order until late January when it bought 65,520 doses of the Pfizer BioNTech shot, the only vaccine it uses. At that point, the United States had administered about 50 million doses of vaccine.
New Zealand, a country of nearly five million people, injected about 45 percent of the population for the first time; less than 25 percent of the population are fully vaccinated. The country has increased vaccine distribution since the new outbreak began, but Ms. Ardern warned this week that without further supplies from Pfizer, efforts may need to be slowed down again.
The government has said it did not need to rush the vaccine approval and procurement process because of its success in containing the virus. With a combination of closed borders and quick lockdowns, it has kept the total number of cases below 3,500 and the death toll to 26. And for the past 18 months, residents have lived with few restrictions for most of the past 18 months.
However, members of the political opposition argued that the government made the population vulnerable when the Delta variant began to circulate around the world. New Zealand had been at risk of an outbreak for some time, with Delta holding the majority of cases in its border hotel quarantine facilities for months. The current outbreak has been linked to a New Zealander who was flown from Sydney, Australia and isolated after testing positive for the variant.
“We sat Delta,” said Christopher Bishop, a National Party MP who speaks for the opposition on Covid-19 politics. “We knew it was going to show up here and it would wreak havoc when it finally got into the church and that’s what happened.”
Understand US vaccination and mask requirements
- Vaccination rules. On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people aged 16 and over, paving the way for increased mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies are increasingly demanding vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally permissible and have been confirmed in legal challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in public places indoors in areas with outbreaks, reversing the guidelines offered in May. See where the CDC guidelines would apply and where states have implemented their own mask guidelines. The battle over masks is controversial in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and Universities. More than 400 colleges and universities require a vaccination against Covid-19. Almost all of them are in states that voted for President Biden.
- schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccination mandates for educational staff. A survey published in August found that many American parents of school-age children are against mandatory vaccines for students but are more likely to support masking requirements for students, teachers and staff who are not vaccinated.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and large health systems require their employees to have a Covid-19 vaccine, due to rising case numbers due to the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their workforce.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required by workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances, and other indoor situations, though enforcement doesn’t begin until September 13th. Teachers and other educational workers in the city’s vast school system are required to have at least one vaccine dose by September 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital staff must also be vaccinated or have weekly tests. Similar rules apply to employees in New York State.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would make coronavirus vaccinations compulsory for the country’s 1.3 million active soldiers “by mid-September at the latest. President Biden announced that all civil federal employees would need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo regular tests, social distancing, mask requirements and travel restrictions.
Yet critical voices such as Mr. Bishop’s in New Zealand remain a minority. Mrs Ardern’s Labor government is one of the most popular of all time in the country and won a large majority in the general election last year. New Zealand’s Chief Health Officer, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, has achieved rock star status and is widely blamed for protecting “the team of five million”.
Although New Zealand is earlier in its lockdown, it has yet to experience the exhaustion that has worried lawmakers in the states of New South Wales or Victoria, Australia. This, in part, reflects the public’s trust in Dr. Bloomfield as the expert who can get New Zealand out of its Covid problems.
“Not only does he have a public profile, he also has a cult-like following,” said Ben Thomas, a New Zealand political commentator and former National Party employee. “The country has a great parasocial devotion to him that is very new to New Zealand.”
Despite the high cost of the lockdown, which has closed most businesses and tied all but essential workers to their homes, it’s worth pushing for the virus to be eradicated for as long as possible, said Prof. Michael Baker, epidemiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
“I am very confident that we will eradicate this outbreak and return to elimination status,” said Professor Baker, who early encouraged the government to adopt the Covid-Zero approach. The debate about the next steps may come later, he added. “I have often referred to it as New Zealand that keeps its options open,” he said.
Not under these options, so Ms. Ardern swore, she stumbled in and out of the lock in the long run.
“Delta changed the rules of the game and that’s why we changed our game plan,” she said at a press conference last week. “Nobody wants to use lockdowns forever. And I can tell you now, that is not our intention. “