News of 45 new community Covid cases drew gasps across the country on Wednesday. But those leading the response are reassuring Aucklanders hopeful for an alert level drop that the number was expected and people shouldn’t read too much into it.

“It won’t be lost on you that this is the largest number of cases we’ve had for some time,’’ were the sobering words delivered by Doctor Ashley Bloomfield at Wednesday’s 1pm Covid update.

After six days of fewer than 20 cases, the Director-General of Health was aware many New Zealanders would be reeling from the highest daily count since September 2.

Bloomfield wanted to ease those concerns by explaining in some detail why the number wasn’t as devastating as some people might be imagining.

“Many of these cases were expected.” – Doctor Ashley Bloomfield

Of the 45 new cases, 33 of them are either household or close contacts of previously reported cases, and more importantly – many of them have already been isolating at home or in a managed isolation facility.

Of those 33 cases, 26 are household contacts and 12 come from just two households alone.

“Many of these cases were expected,’’ Bloomfield said.

On Monday he warned there were between 45 and 50 cases likely to arise and 33 of them are now accounted for, meaning there are only about 15 household or close contact cases left to come through from existing positive cases.

That number was calculated based on the spread of the virus within households to date.

The more concerning number is the 12 community cases from Wednesday’s total that aren’t linked to households or a known contact.

But again, Bloomfield offered good news, saying six of them already have potential links based on interviews conducted so far.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins reiterated that the number of cases wasn’t the number one concern.

“It’s not so much the number of the cases, but the nature and characteristics. Yes, it’s a big number and a sobering number.’’

But Hipkins stressed the bulk of the cases were concentrated in larger households and contact tracing and surveillance testing had worked.

“I would encourage people not to read too much into it at this point. We need to hold our nerve here and we’re still aiming to run this into the ground,’’ he said.

University of Canterbury Professor Michael Plank says the move a week ago to Alert Level 3 in Auckland is now starting to rear its head.

“Given the incubation period of the virus, this is the first time we would expect to see the effect of the alert level change in case numbers,’’ he said.

“If numbers do start to trend upwards again, the government faces some tough decisions.” – Professor Michael Plank

While Plank said the number was “concerning’’, the high amount of household contacts or known contacts meant it was “possible they will go back down again over the next few days’’.

His worry is the 12 cases yet to be linked and the possibility they’ve been infectious in the community or back in workplaces at Level 3.

“This will make the outbreak harder to contain.’

“If numbers do start to trend upwards again, the Government faces some tough decisions.’

“Level 3 may be enough to keep the outbreak in check, but that could mean Auckland is stuck in Level 3 for a long time until a lot more people have been able to get their second dose,’’ he said.

Emergency and transitional housing a new focus

In recent weeks there have been gang members and associates who have tested positive for Covid-19, but Bloomfield ruled out gangs being the cause of the latest rise in numbers.

He said a proportion of the current cases are in groups of people living in transitional and emergency housing – the nature of which means people are moving around for various reasons.

“We did have a group of households two or three weeks ago where members of households had gang affiliations. We had a lot of engagement, including with leaders of gangs … those are not the households we’re seeing the residual cases coming through from,’’ he said.

Those living in emergency or transitional housing have been forthcoming about getting tested, but Bloomfield said in some cases it did require “a different approach to engage and follow up’’.

As a result of the latest outbreak, Covid testers will be going directly to these areas to swab, and will then return at a later date and follow up with offers to vaccinate, Bloomfield told Newsroom.

It’s unclear what percentage of people living in emergency housing are vaccinated to date, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Newsroom more work was needed to be done there.

“We have had vaccination programmes, using our social housing providers, going through for instance our rough sleeping community and going through those communities where maybe people are more transient in emergency housing.

“That work needs to continue, it had started, but it needs to continue,’’ Ardern said. 

District Health Boards have had rollout plans for those in emergency and transitional housing in larger metropolitan cities, Bloomfield said.

And for those living in dense types of social housing, a high vaccination rate was particularly important, he told Newsroom.

Doctor Rawiri Jansen, clinical director of the National Hauora Coalition, has warned Covid’s Delta variant has now reached communities that are “made vulnerable by poverty and housing overcrowding’’.

“These communities have the most exposure to Covid because they are overloaded, have less income and have been historically poorly served by health and social sectors.

“These communities have many low paid essential workers who cannot work from home.

“Outbreaks in these communities will require extra effort, extra resources and service providers who are culturally concordant.’’

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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