Resurgence of COVID-19 in Europe: What lessons can New Zealand learn before easing restrictions?

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Speaking about the rise in the number of cases this month, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said vaccines are a “powerful asset” but should be “used with ‘other tools’ such as contact tracing and physical distancing.

He noted that if 95% of universal mask use was achieved in Europe and Central Asia, “we could save up to 188,000 lives out of the 500,000 lives we could lose by February 2022”.

Countries in the region should “carefully rethink whether to relax or lift” measures for now, Dr Kluge said.

What does this mean for New Zealand?

Throughout Aotearoa’s COVID-19 response, we have had the benefit of being able to study the experiences of other countries before dealing with the issues ourselves.

The situation unfolding in Europe provides another opportunity for New Zealand to understand how COVID-19 can return, even when most people have had two injections.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is clearly keeping an eye on it, telling Parliament this week in Europe, “a region which has access to vaccinations the same way we do” has been warned by the WHO of its perilous position.

“In parts of Europe there are levels of vaccination that we consider to be high heading towards lockdown. We need to continue to listen to the best research and advice possible, and that is what we are doing.”

Vaccination

We are unable to make an exact comparison between the situation in Denmark, for example, and New Zealand. On the one hand, Denmark, a Nordic country, enters winter when the virus is naturally more likely to spread due to people being inside, while New Zealand is heading into summer.

But there are lessons to be learned.

One of them should relate to what we consider to be a “high vaccination rate”, according to Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist at the University of Auckland. She thinks it is essential to focus on the actual number of unvaccinated people and to identify the rates in the general population.

Merely looking at the percentage of fully vaccinated people among those eligible can give a false sense of security when the number of unvaccinated remains large, she says.

“I think you have to step away from that percentage and think, numerically, how many people you actually have, because that’s where you see it,” says Dr. Petousis-Harris. “You really see this problem mostly among the unvaccinated and it turns out there is a lot of it numerically.”

For example, while 86.3 percent of the eligible population in Denmark is fully vaccinated, it drops to 76 percent taking into account the total population. That leaves more than a million Danes unvaccinated in total, including those who are not yet able to get the vaccine.

Dr Petousis-Harris says New Zealand can’t just forget about the vaccination when we hit 90 percent.

“Even when you hit 90 percent, like in New Zealand, there are still hundreds of thousands of people and Delta will find everyone,” she says.


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