New Zealand wages high-stakes effort to halt virus outbreak

Wellington, Aug 27 (AP):
By early next week, New Zealanders should know if their government’s strict new lockdown is working to stamp out its first coronavirus outbreak in six months. A successful effort could again make the nation’s virus response the envy of the world. A failure could expose flaws in its health system, including a shortage of hospital beds and a slow vaccine rollout.
The high-stakes campaign hinges on whether new infections, which have risen for the past 10 days, begin to drop.
Last week, the government put the nation into the full lockdown after only a single community case was detected in the city of Auckland..
‘It’s counterintuitive,’ said epidemiologist Michael Baker. ‘When there’s a threat, you usually increase the response as it gets more dangerous. Here, we’re doing the opposite, with the maximum response when the threat is tiny.’
It’s a strategy that has worked incredibly well for New Zealand but faces its biggest test against a tougher enemy: the highly contagious delta variant of the virus. Baker, a professor at the University of Otago, said the strategy was the best approach and he was optimistic it would succeed again. Since the pandemic began, New Zealand has reported only 26 deaths from the virus in a population of 5 million. The death rate per capita in Britain and the US is about 400 times higher. Remarkably, life expectancy for New Zealanders actually rose in 2020 as virus measures helped reduce other seasonal ailments like the flu.
The US is in the grip of a wave of infection powered by the delta variant, which has sent cases, deaths and hospitalizations soaring again, wiping out months of progress.
New Zealanders lived virus-free in the six months leading up to the latest outbreak, going to workplaces, stores and sports stadiums without needing to wear masks, while children attended school.
Then a traveler returning from Sydney brought the delta variant and it somehow escaped from a quarantine hotel. The outbreak has grown to about 350 known cases and is straining New Zealand’s contact-tracing system as workers try to track down 30,000 other people who might have been exposed.
New Zealand has a large diaspora of Pacific Island people. The outbreak has hit this community particularly hard after spreading at a Samoan church event that drew hundreds. That led to some racist attacks on social media.
‘This is disappointing and, frankly, gutless,’ said Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of public health. ‘I’m asking everyone in the country to be kind.’
The lockdown prevents most people from leaving home other than to exercise, or to buy groceries or medicine. Retail stores are closed, as are restaurants including takeout schools and most businesses.
While much of the world is learning to live with the virus and has moved away from hard lockdowns, most New Zealanders still embrace them.
‘Fortunately, there’s a great team spirit,’ said Lesley Gray, a public health specialist at the University of Otago. ‘It’s quite obvious to me that the country would rather keep this out. We want to stamp it out, keep it out.’
Among the handful of other places that have successfully pursued virus elimination strategies are China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

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