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COVID-19 cases soar in New Zealand, in dramatic shift

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New Zealand is in the throes of skyrocketing COVID-19 infections, marking a dramatic shift for the small country in the South Pacific. For much of the pandemic, it had successfully suppressed the virus, but daily cases that numbered in the hundreds just two weeks ago jumped to more than 22,000 by Friday. NPR's Julie McCarthy has this report.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Omicron finally arrived in New Zealand and is spreading at what's estimated to be the fastest rate in the world. Monday hit a record high of more than 32,000 new infections, a staggering number in a country of just 5 million. Epidemiologist Michael Baker told local media that New Zealanders will need to make a psychological shift

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MICHAEL BAKER: It's a shock to see those numbers go so high. And one reason it's a shock is that New Zealand managed the pandemic so well to date. We've kept case numbers down. In particular, we've kept deaths very low.

MCCARTHY: In fact, only 63 people have died from COVID-19, one of the lowest counts in the world, and it was achieved through some of the strictest lockdowns in the world. But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned that as the country now moves into a new, more relaxed phase, ending restrictions and opening up, there will be more virus circulating and more New Zealanders getting it. She encouraged that third shot.

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PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: And as you firm up your household omicron plan, make your booster the first thing you do to protect yourself and vulnerable people you know from getting the virus.

MCCARTHY: As eye-popping as the omicron surge is, New Zealand Health Director Ashley Bloomfield says the country's high rate of vaccination - 80%, according to Johns Hopkins - will keep hospitalizations down and good outcomes up.

ASHLEY BLOOMFIELD: For most people, COVID-19 will be a mild to moderate illness that can be managed quite safely at home.

MCCARTHY: Omicron is radiating out from New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, where anti-lockdown protests erupted last year. The capital Wellington saw protracted at times violent demonstrations in the last three weeks.

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MCCARTHY: Government opponents occupied the grounds of Parliament, decrying mandates and touting natural immunity over vaccines. Things turned nasty when protesters flung feces at police and doused a stinging spray on officers. When Wellington police shut the occupation down this week, Prime Minister Ardern condemned the violence and the disinformation that she said protesters had succumbed to.

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ARDERN: And while many of us have seen that disinformation and dismissed it as conspiracy theory, a small portion of our society have not only believed it, they have acted upon it in an extreme and violent way that cannot stand.

MCCARTHY: Every major democracy has had to confront citizens uneasy with vaccines and the fundamental clash it presents, the obligation one owes society versus one's individual right to act freely. New Zealander Trudy Kessels (ph), a mother of three and member of Families Against Mandates, says the government is wielding a blunt instrument in that dispute. She says these complicated tensions...

TRUDY KESSELS: Need nuanced discussion and complex solutions.

MCCARTHY: There may be ample opportunity for that yet. Noted public health physician David Skegg says the pandemic is far from over.

DAVID SKEGG: The virus continues to mutate, and personally, I'll be surprised if we're still talking about the honorclub variant by the end of the year.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.