Another Covid-19 death has occurred, the second from the August outbreak, Marc Daalder reports

The death of an Auckland GP and former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Dr Joe Williams, has taken to two the fatalities from Auckland’s second wave of Covid-19.

Dr Williams, who had a clinic in Mt Wellington, had been in hospital since the middle of last month and died on Friday. His death takes to 24 the total number killed by the coronavirus in this country.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters paid tribute: “Dr Williams, a former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, contributed very significantly to his two home countries through a lifetime of service.

“As a doctor, a health researcher and as a politician, Dr Williams made a serious mark on the communities he served. He will be greatly missed in both New Zealand and the Cook Islands.”

On Friday it was revealed a man in his 50s had died in Middlemore Hospital after days in ICU for Covid-19. This was the first death linked to the August outbreak.

The man had been able to communicate with family virtually and his wife and son visited him in hospital while wearing full PPE, the Ministry of Health said in a statement.

“Our thoughts are with his family and community at this time of loss and grief,” Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said.

“Today’s news reinforces the importance of our shared vigilance against COVID-19, the very serious consequences the virus can carry with it, and the measures we all need to take to stop the spread, break any chain of transmission and prevent deaths,” he added.

The news came just hours after the Prime Minister announced the current alert level settings – with Auckland in a strict form of Level 2 and the rest of the country at a more open Level 2 – will remain in place through September 16 at the earliest.

Cabinet will meet on Monday, September 14 to consider whether the country should move down alert levels or whether Auckland’s restrictions should be eased. But waiting until then will give ministers a full cycle of transmission – 14 days’ worth of data – to inform their decision and assure them that moving Auckland down to Level 2 hasn’t led to wider spread of the virus.

As it stands, social distancing is required across the country and mass gatherings are banned. Masks are mandated on public transport, including buses, trains and planes, as well as for the drivers of taxis and Ubers. They are also recommended in any indoor situation where social distancing is difficult, particularly when strangers are present.

In most of New Zealand, the mass gathering limit is set at 100 people. In Auckland, it is 10. Aucklanders have also been asked to “bring their restrictions with them”, meaning they should avoid gatherings with more than 10 people even when travelling outside of the “Level 2.5” zone.

Cabinet met on Friday to discuss whether alert levels should change, but Ardern said a step down to Level 1 was never really considered. Easing restrictions in Auckland or moving the South Island to Level 1 were discussed, but ultimately dismissed. The South Island differentiation was opposed because it would require limiting travel between the two islands as long as the North Island was at Level 2 or 2.5.

Given Auckland only moved down to Level 2 on Monday, Ardern said there was too little information to assure ministers that further easing of restrictions was safe. She said there had been 30 community cases found since the de-escalation and, although all of these have been linked to either the main cluster or the church “mini-cluster”, there was an unlinked case discovered on Saturday.

Unlike the 30 cases found over the past five days, which were all close contacts of existing cases and were already self-isolating, the unlinked case was found through symptomatic testing. This, like the other cases that haven’t been epidemiologically linked to the cluster, raises the spectre of missing links in the chain of transmission which might have infected others. This was another reason to keep Auckland at Level 2.5.

The rest of the country needs to be held at Level 2 because Aucklanders are now able to travel and the added social distancing and mask-wearing restrictions ensure any spread – like that in Tokoroa – is limited before it is detected.

The announcement came ahead of Auckland’s first weekend out of lockdown since August 8-9. Ardern said police would be visible in places of congregation over the weekend.

She and Bloomfield also said that fatigue at the array of restrictions in Auckland and elsewhere was understandable. But Bloomfield said the high usage of masks and high uptake of the NZ COVID Tracer showed people were still willing to play their part – and these behaviours may need to continue for quite some time.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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