AUCKLAND, New Zealand – When New Zealand reported a case of the coronavirus spreading in the community for the first time in months on August 17, residents took action. They stripped pasta and toilet paper on supermarket shelves, dug hidden masks from drawers and fled to vacation homes in the mountains or on the beach.
Hours later, the expected announcement came: the country would plunge into a highly restrictive three-day lockdown after that one case of the Delta variant. New Zealand, one of the last countries still pursuing “Covid zero”, would aim to eradicate the virus again, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference that day.
“While we know Delta is a more dangerous enemy to fight,” she said, “the same actions that defeated the virus last year can be applied to defeat it.”
Two weeks later, New Zealand is still in lockdown, one that will last at least another 14 days. One case has reached nearly 700, with nearly three dozen requiring hospitalization. And the well-known playbook that has made New Zealand an envied model during the pandemic is struggling to contain a much more contagious strain of the virus.
“The challenge is to shut down Delta,” said Rodney Jones, New Zealand government adviser on the pandemic. “No country has eliminated Delta.”
For now, New Zealand seems almost united behind the push to try, with high compliance with the lockdown and strong confidence in public health officials. But Ms Ardern and other leaders are beginning to recognize that New Zealand may eventually have to change course as the virus continues to spread – 75 new cases were reported on Wednesday, an increase of about 50 each from the previous two days – and the vaccination campaign is lagging behind. . That would mean tolerating some spread of the virus to keep society more open, a strategy pursued to varying degrees in almost every developed country.
While China has expressed a long-term commitment to a Covid-zero approach, the Delta variant has already struck down such virus elimination blueprints in Singapore, Hong Kong and several other places in the Asia-Pacific region. New Zealand’s leaders are closely monitoring neighboring Australia, where the state of New South Wales, after nearly two months of lockdown, is now reporting more than 1,000 cases a day.
Until July, Australia had not recorded a single Covid death in 2021 and it had extinguished any minor flare-ups of infection. Now his Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has rejected the virus elimination approach altogether.
“Any state and any area that thinks they can somehow protect themselves from Covid forever with the Delta tribe, that’s just absurd,” he said last week. “New Zealand can’t do that. They followed an elimination strategy. They are locked.”
Australia is trying to vaccinate its way to relative safety, focusing on areas hard hit by the Delta variant. That option isn’t available to New Zealand, which has the fewest per capita doses administered of any developed country.
The country didn’t place its first vaccine order until late January, when it bought 65,520 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech injection, the only vaccine it uses. At that time, the United States had administered approximately 50 million doses of vaccine.
New Zealand, a country of nearly five million people, has had about 45 percent of the population given their first injections and less than 25 percent of residents have been fully vaccinated. The country has increased vaccine distribution since the start of the new outbreak, but Ms Ardern warned this week that the effort may have to be slowed down again without more supplies from Pfizer.
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 rapid lockdowns, it has kept the total caseload at less than 3,500 and the death toll at 26. And for most of the past 18 months, residents have lived with few disabilities.
But members of the political opposition argued that the government had left the population vulnerable when the Delta variant began circulating around the world. New Zealand had been at risk of an outbreak for some time, with Delta doing most of the cases for months at its border quarantine facilities at the hotel. The current outbreak has been linked to a New Zealander who flew from Sydney, Australia, and was placed in isolation after testing positive for the variant.
“We’ve sat for Delta,” said Christopher Bishop, a National Party lawmaker who speaks on behalf of the opposition on Covid-19 policy. “We knew it would pop up here and cause havoc if it eventually got into the community, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Yet critical voices like Mr Bishop’s remain a minority in New Zealand. Mrs Ardern’s Labor government is one of the most popular ever in New Zealand, winning a large majority in the country’s general election last year. And New Zealand’s top health official, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, has achieved rock star status and is widely credited with keeping “the team of five million” safe.
Understanding Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the US
- Vaccine Rules. On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies are increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are permitted by law and have been confirmed in court proceedings.
- Mask Rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in July that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places in areas with outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. Find out where CDC guidelines apply and where states have their own masking policies. The battle over masks has become controversial in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are demanding that students be vaccinated against Covid-19. Nearly all of them are in states that voted for President Biden.
- schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for educators. A survey published in August found that many U.S. parents of school-aged children are opposed to mandatory vaccines for students, but were more in favor of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff who have not received their injections.
- Hospitals and Medical Centers. Many hospitals and major health systems require workers to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, citing the increasing caseload fueled by the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination coverage in their communities, even within their workforce.
- New York City. Evidence of vaccination is required from employees and customers for indoor meals, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement will not begin until September 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system must have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital employees should also receive a vaccine or be tested weekly. Similar rules apply to employees in New York State.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced it would seek to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for the country’s 1.3 million active troops “by mid-September”. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
Although New Zealand has been in lockdown before, it has not yet experienced the confinement fatigue that has plagued lawmakers in Australia’s New South Wales or Victoria states. That’s in part a reflection of the public’s trust in Dr. Bloomfield as the expert who can get New Zealand out of its Covid troubles.
“Not only does he have a public profile, but he also has a cult-like following,” said Ben Thomas, a New Zealand political commentator and former National Party staffer. “The country has a huge kind of parasocial devotion to him, which is very new to New Zealand.”
Despite the high cost of the lockdown, which has closed most businesses and confined all but essential workers to their homes, it is worth pushing for the virus to be eradicated as long as possible, said Prof. Michael Baker. an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
“I am confident that we will eradicate this outbreak and return to elimination status,” said Professor Baker, who early on encouraged the government to adopt the Covid zero approach. Debate on next steps may come later, he added. “I’ve often pictured it as New Zealand keeping its options open,” he said.
Not one of those options, swore Ms Ardern, is winding in and out of lockdown forever.
“Delta has changed the rules of the game and that is why we have 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.”