Covid 19 Delta variant: Uptick in care facility cases a concern, experts say

The announcement on Wednesday of a large uptick in Covid-19 cases at a West Auckland care facility is concerning, health experts have told the Herald, confirming that it could “easily” add to the death toll of this outbreak.

But there’s also some good news: New Zealand’s older demographic is much more resilient against the virus now than it was in 2020 when 12 people died as a result of the Rosewood Rest Home cluster in Christchurch, experts say.

Regardless, University of Otago epidemiology professor Michael Baker said of the new cluster, “it’s not what you want”.

The Ministry of Health has reported that 15 residents of the Edmonton Meadows Care Home in Henderson are now infected with the virus – up from eight on Monday. Three of them are receiving treatment at North Shore Hospital.

Four staff members have also tested positive.

“The care home continues to operate under alert level 3 guidelines for visitors, meaning people have only been able to visit the facility on compassionate grounds,” the Ministry of Health said this week. “As the source of the infection in the facility remains unknown, whole-genome sequencing is underway.”

The high uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine among New Zealand’s older population this year should set the current cluster apart from previous outbreaks at rest homes, assuming residents of the 60-bed facility had a similarly high rate, Baker said. But the vaccine isn’t infallible, he acknowledged.

“That is obviously a population where death can occur, whether you’re vaccinated or not,” he said. “The risks are reduced with vaccination, but they are still much higher in populations with older people.”

University of Melbourne epidemiology professor Tony Blakely said Victoria and New South Wales also saw prominent outbreaks at rest homes and aged care facilities in 2020 but much less so this year. That is likely due to the prioritisation of vaccines for staff and residents and improved Covid precautions such as staff only working at one site.

But outbreaks will continue to occur at such facilities, both in Australia and New Zealand, as we learn to live with the virus, he said.

Mask requirements for guests and booster jabs at six months for all residents and staff are among the steps that can be taken to reduce the vulnerability of the residents, he said.

“Even if all residents and staff are vaccinated, infection may still occasionally get in as Pfizer is only 80 per cent effective at stopping one get infected, and this wanes to about 50 per cent effectiveness at six months for elderly,” he said.

“But protection against serious illness and hospitalisations should remain high at something like 90 per cent.”

Unvaccinated elderly people, meanwhile, might have a 50 per cent chance of being hospitalised, he said.

New Zealand has had 28 deaths since the pandemic began, but only two of those were a result of the current outbreak. One reason for that low number, Baker said, is that the virus seems to have spread more among younger – less likely to be vaccinated – populations this time.

The vaccine, he said, should give Edmonton Meadows residents a “vastly better chance of surviving it”.

“But we could still see deaths in this facility quite easily.”

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