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Tip-toeing out of lockdown

Promising milestones and a glimpse of life at Level 2 has raised hopes - but is it too soon to ease restrictions?

This week New Zealand recorded its first day with zero new cases of COVID-19, a figure University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker called a symbolic milestone. But, he warned "complacency is the enemy" in the fight to eliminate the virus.

"It is not a guarantee that there is no circulating virus in New Zealand. We will almost certainly get more cases reported later this week. It's no basis for relaxing our guard at all."

University of Otago psychologist Christopher Gale said officials were in uncharted territory, working with limited data to make decisions on when to ease lockdown.

"No one should be assuming it's the end - because one day of no cases is good news but we really need to know just how infectious this stuff is with our current social rules and interactions."

Another milestone has come in the form of four COVID-19 clusters being closed, after showing no new transmissions for 28 days. Massey University Professor of Computational Biology Murray Cox said the country was nearing a point where we might actually have no virus cases within New Zealand.

"The big challenge coming up... is how we keep it that way."

We've also been given a view of life at Alert Level 2. While various restrictions will be lifted, people considered to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 are still encouraged to take additional precautions. AUT dietician Caryn Zinn said a large part of the New Zealand population was considered unhealthy, with nearly two-thirds overweight or obese, and 16% having high blood pressure.

“As we move into Level 2, people can make positive lifestyle changes to help protect themselves. For people with Type 2 diabetes, maintaining stable blood sugar is crucial."

Click here for more expert comment on populations vulnerable to COVID-19.

A high-level scientific review has found the evidence is still out on whether the population should be wearing face masks in the move to Alert Level 2. It says the majority of studies have not demonstrated a benefit, but if masks are used wrong, they could result in increased infection risk.

All eyes will be on Monday's cabinet meeting, where politicians will decide whether to go to Alert Level 2. But, University of Auckland Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles said it was too soon, as we wouldn't see the full effects of the shift to Level 3 until later next week.

"If we move too fast, we'll see a resurgence of cases but we won't see them for a few weeks. What we really need probably, and I know this is awful, is another week or two to make sure that there was nothing that started that has triggered something else."

Quoted: Expert Reaction
"This is a long tramp through the wilderness, not a sprint."
Clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire on the first day with zero COVID-19 cases.

Te Pūtahi
With COVID-19 misinformation swirling, a new weekly show on the iwi radio network will help share a Māori perspective on science research.

In the first episode, Dr Andrew Sporle talks about COVID-19, what we can learn from the past, and the role of haukāinga and challenging the Government on inequities for Māori in health.

Te Pūtahi is a collaboration between Te Hiku Media, the Science Media Centre, and Ignite Studios.


Science Journalism Fund
Seven new projects will be funded in the special COVID-19 round of the Aotearoa New Zealand Science Journalism Fund.

Rapid grants of $2,500 have been provided to projects related to COVID-19, with publication expected in the next month, for a total of $17,500. The following projects have been funded.
Vaping: its role in the Covid-19 crisis and if proposed new regulations go far enough
Nicky Pellegrino, freelance
Baking, biking and bubbles: has the Covid-19 lockdown made us more or less healthy?
Niki Bezzant, freelance
Covid-1984, will we sacrifice our privacy to stop a pandemic
Robin Kerr, RE: News
Fixing the country: start in your own backyard
Glenda Lewis, freelance
On the offensive: Otago researchers tackling Covid-19
Bruce Munro, Otago Daily Times
What happens when a new disease emerges?
Libby Wilson, Stuff/Waikato Times
COVID-19 and other crises
Veronika Meduna, freelance
Funding was provided by ESR, Te Pūnaha Matatini and the Science Media Centre.

Flu in the time of coronavirus
New Zealand's COVID-19 lockdown may also lead to a mild flu season if we continue hand hygiene and social distancing.

In a Science Media Centre online briefing, Dr Sue Huang of ESR said the past four weeks there had only been ten influenza cases in New Zealand, compared to 388 for the same time last year.

Dr Huang, who is director of the WHO National Influenza Centre at ESR, said flu was notoriously difficult to predict, but that if people continued good personal hygiene after lockdown, "using hand sanitiser and very frequent handwashing, or coughing in the elbow ... we can potentially maintain this kind of low flu activity into the season".

University of Auckland Associate Professor and Immunisation Advisory Centre director Nikki Turner said we couldn't predict flu seasons "and I wouldn't try", but there was less influenza coming into the country due to border controls.

"But there is always flu circulating in New Zealand. So we will have a flu winter season, we just don't know how bad it is or when it will arrive."

Flu vaccine uptake was "way higher than we've ever had before," Dr Turner said.

"From the first of May, for our population over 65, we’ve had nearly 60 per cent of the population vaccinated – which may seem low, but last year it was just over a third. I would still like to see us do better, but we’re doing better than we ever have before."

"Of course the downside of that is that we have struggled with the supply and demand issues," Dr Turner said. Projections about vaccine demand needed to be made well ahead of the season. Even though an extra 400,000 doses were ordered before the pandemic, she said recent demand looked like it might outstrip that stock.

"My opinion is that it’s really important to focus on those most vulnerable. It’s really hard to predict how high community demand will be, and if you just allow everybody to have a vaccine New Zealand would run out."

Dr Huang said ESR's SHIVER-II study was continuing this year and would include COVID-19 testing alongside influenza surveillance and testing.

A recent survey indicated that at least 50 per cent of families had not been coming in for vaccinations on time, including childhood vaccines. Dr Turner said there was a real concern internationally that diseases such as measles could make a comeback.

"As many of us know, we really struggled with measles in New Zealand last year. Internationally, it does not take much for a childhood programme to get delayed and measles to return and we could well see there will end up being more deaths in our childhood population from measles than from many other issues.

"We can't let this slip, we can't stop, we can't delay."

The full briefing and an excerpted Q&A is available here.

Policy news & developments

New legal framework as move to Alert Level 2 considered: A new law providing a legal framework for Covid-19 Alert Level 2 will be introduced and debated next week.

$25 million for innovative solutions: The COVID-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund is aimed at the fast development of new products and services that could help to detect, diagnose, treat or prevent COVID-19.

Upgrade for wildlife sanctuary in Northland: $2.5 million will go towards the Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre.

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