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As Aucklanders enjoyed their first day of eased restrictions the Delta outbreak continued its march further into Waikato, with reports its spread now is linked to gang activity and sparking calls for tighter restrictions.
Its appearance in the small, vulnerable and relatively lowly-vaccinated communities of Kawhia and Cambridge further challenged the Government’s commitment to eliminating the virus.
“We’ve got to try and contain it because there’s still a lot of people out there that aren’t vaccinated and we’re still likely to overwhelm our health services,” Waipa Mayor Jim Mylchreest said.
His concerns were supported by health experts, who have called for a tightening of restrictions to prevent further spread and more resources and support to be poured into vulnerable communities at the heart of the outbreak.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said despite 39 cases reported on Wednesday, and many of the previous day’s cases being infectious in the community, they were almost entirely linked to each other.
Thirty were in Auckland but nine were in Waikato, the northern area of which was recently put into level 3, including cases in both Kawhia and Karapiro.
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The Ministry of Health also reported the second death of the outbreak, a man in his 50s who had been in the intensive care unit for 40 days.
The ministry released two locations of interest in Waikato – Countdown Dinsdale and the emergency department at Waikato Hospital on Friday late morning.
Just one of the new cases was not yet linked, along with four from the previous day.
“These additional cases are reasonably well contained,” Hipkins said.
“They are all linked to one another, they know what the chain of transmission is. But if we start to see more cases popping up the dynamic changes quickly.”
Hipkins did not rule out putting wider regions into level 3 and extending the boundary, but said at this stage it still appeared to be under control.
Ōtorohanga district Mayor Max Baxter told the Herald he was unsure how to contain a case in Kawhia given there was only one road in and limited stores for locals to get supplies.
The Ōtorohanga District is at the bottom of the Herald’s Top Towns table for percentage of people fully vaccinated – at just 32.9 per cent of the eligible population.
The nature of the spread was linked to a “large gang presence”, Hipkins said – an admission after days of speculation the outbreak had been moving through the underworld.
Hipkins noted that some of these people in the outbreak had been more “active” than permissible under alert levels.
“Some of the people involved have been more active than would be consistent with the alert levels in the areas they have been.”
Hipkins also addressed questions about how the Government was interacting with the gang community, including granting exemptions for two leaders to enter Auckland to assist with promoting vaccinations and testing.
“I have no time for the gangs, I don’t have any sympathy for them,” Hipkins said.
“But the number one priority here has to be to stop Covid-19.”
National Party leader Judith Collins said there was a real concern about the growing number of cases in the Waikato, especially the lack of locations of interest being listed.
“It’s pretty clear at least some of them will be gang-related and people do need to know where it is.
“The relevance is other people generally comply with the law. If you’re living as gang member outside of the law, basically you’re in the criminal underworld.
“Your chances of actually complying with orders seem to be pretty remote, particularly when there’s the temptation of taking a load of methamphetamine from Auckland to Waikato and coming back with a bootload of KFC.”
Hipkins said the nature of the outbreak was following similar patterns to overseas, and had taken hold in vulnerable and marginalised communities.
His comments followed tweets from a senior Auckland health official who said the “current situation is entirely due to poverty, housing and colonisation”.
“We couldn’t get back to zero because Covid took hold in the communities that ‘mainstream’ society forgot.
“Same reasons our vaccine rollout is too inequitable to pull us out of lockdown.”
Asked if the Government had failed to prepare for this situation, Hipkins said “an awful lot of work” had gone into increasing vaccination rates in vulnerable communities and testing efforts.
Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, an immunologist at the University of Otago, said the treatment of the most vulnerable communities in the country was providing a “mirror on our society and reflecting who we really are as a country”.
The spread was “not surprising”, she said, given still-low vaccination rates in those new areas and restrictions being eased.
“A further extension of the alert level 3 border will be likely needed to keep the new Waikato cases contained and limit further spread.
“These latest developments are sadly unsurprising, with Covid-19 case numbers continuing to increase, and with unlinked mystery cases of unknown origin also persisting.
“As we have seen demonstrated already, the ongoing potential impact and consequences for our most vulnerable communities remains serious.”
Meanwhile, on Wednesday Hipkins announced a “National Action Day” next Saturday, October 16, to boost vaccination rates.
Hipkins said with over half the eligible population now fully vaccinated and more than 80 per cent with at least one dose, everyone had to do their bit to reach the remaining 20 per cent.
“We’ve got a plan and to make it work we’re asking everyone to contribute to a big, nationwide push for vaccination.”
National leader Collins, who had even sent her deputy Dr Shane Reti back up to Northland to give vaccinations in the region, said they supported the plan.
On vaccine hesitancy Collins said she would share her own experience, and tell people she trusted the science.
“Even though I do not understand all of the science, and the mRNA work that has gone on, but I am aware that I don’t have to understand everything to trust it.
“One of the things I say to people is that a lot of people like KFC. I don’t, by the way, but a lot of people do and who knows what is in those secret herbs and spices? And yet people still eat it.”
– additional reporting Belinda Feek, Thomas Coughlan, Claire Trevett
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