Let’s imagine that we have a vaccination campaign that has gone really well in New Zealand, with a high proportion of the population receiving the Pfizer / BioNTech jab. As more people get vaccinated, community protection also increases.
Let’s also imagine that, globally, numbers of cases of Covid-19 have fallen dramatically, but pandemic coronavirus variants still circulate freely around the world.
Can we still maintain an elimination strategy in New Zealand as we open our borders?
It’s looking unlikely. In fact, what we might need to think about is a higher number of cases of Covid-19 in the community than we have been used to seeing until now.
Even if we require vaccination for visitors to New Zealand, this gives visitors a high level of Covid-19 protection, but it is not perfect. It varies between vaccines and variants of the virus, perhaps for how it affects onward transmission too. Although data are becoming available, we still don’t know enough about this.
It’s possible that we will have visitors who end up testing positive for Covid-19 in the community. And even if we have high levels of vaccine uptake, and good community protection in New Zealand, it’s highly likely that we will also need to keep and increase the use of behavioural methods – distancing, masking, reducing numbers of people meeting indoors – in reducing risk of exposure to Covid-19 infection when community outbreaks are detected.
How we think about these outbreaks is likely to change.
Testing methods and contact tracing are likely to evolve and improve, as will the Alert Level system that has served us very well until now.
But as we move into a future where we may see more imported cases of Covid-19 in the community, we will need to plan how we contain these outbreaks, and encourage people to continue to maintain physical distance, wash our hands, and use masks where appropriate according to local conditions and risk of infection.
The more people take up the vaccine, the better. This work continues. But as we transition into a world where international travellers eventually come into New Zealand and move around again, alongside the continuing vaccine campaign as an additional layer of protection, we will need to deploy all our behavioural methods of reducing our risk of infection.
Vaccines alone won’t protect us when we re-open our borders. Not for some time to come.