New Zealand Gives Up on 'Zero COVID'

Country likely won't be able to eliminate the virus, PM says
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 4, 2021 1:36 AM CDT
New Zealand Gives Up on 'Zero COVID'
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives with director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, right, for the post-Cabinet press conference at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.   (Mark Mitchell/Pool Photo via AP)

New Zealand's government acknowledged Monday what most other countries did long ago: It can no longer completely get rid of the coronavirus. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions in Auckland, despite an outbreak there that continues to simmer, the AP reports. Since early in the pandemic, New Zealand had pursued an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the virus through strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing. Until recently, that elimination strategy had worked remarkably well for the country of 5 million, which has reported just 27 virus deaths. But that all changed when the more contagious delta variant somehow escaped from a quarantine facility in August after it was brought into the country from a traveler returning from Australia.

Despite New Zealand going into the strictest form of lockdown after just a single local case was detected, it ultimately wasn't enough to crush the outbreak entirely. One factor may have been that the disease spread among some groups that are typically more wary of authorities, including gang members and homeless people living in transitional housing. The outbreak has grown to more than 1,300 cases, with 29 more detected on Monday. A few cases have been found outside of Auckland. Under Ardern's plan that starts Tuesday, Aucklanders will be able to meet outdoors with loved ones from one other household, early childhood centers will reopen, and people will be able to go to the beach.

The dates for a phased reopening of retail stores and later bars and restaurants have yet to be decided. "For this outbreak, it’s clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases,” Ardern said. “But that is OK. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things.” About 65% of New Zealanders have had at least one dose and 40% are fully vaccinated. Among people age 12 and older, about 79% have had at least a single jab. Ardern said that most measures would remain in place to keep the outbreak under control, including exhaustive contact tracing and isolating those who got infected.

(Read more New Zealand stories.)

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