New Zealand, once Covid-free, tops 1 million cases since pandemic began

New Zealand has recorded more than 1m cases of Covid-19, after spending the first 18 months of the pandemic largely free of the virus.

The milestone reflects a stark change in New Zealand’s pandemic experience, with more than 986,000 of those cases hitting in the months since the start of 2022. The country has had a huge spike in cases since Omicron breached the borders in December 2021, and the government loosened most restrictions in March.

Tuesday’s official 1 million case milestone means at least 20% of the population has now been infected, but modellers said the true number of infections is likely three times higher.

“We know that the number of cases that we’re seeing are just a fraction of the true number of infections that are happening,” said Dr Dion O’Neale of Covid Modelling Aotearoa, based at the University of Auckland.

O’Neale said modellers’ best estimates were that official case numbers recorded around a third of actual infections – meaning that New Zealand would have now had about 3m infections. Cases were missed for a variety of reasons, he said: some were asymptomatic, some didn’t report positive test results, some didn’t have easy access to testing, and people reluctant to get vaccinated were also reluctant to test or report an infection.

Despite the rise in cases, New Zealand’s death rate has remained relatively low by international standards. The total number of publicly reported deaths with Covid-19 is now 876 for the entirety of the pandemic – that figure includes all those who die within 28 days of contracting the virus. Hong Kong, another Covid-elimination state, has recorded more than 9,300 deaths for its population of 7.48m.

New Zealand’s low death rate has been assisted by its high levels of vaccination – 95% of adults are double-vaccinated, and 70% have had an additional booster shot.

Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said: “I would like to reiterate my thanks to everyone in New Zealand who has played their part to keep our case numbers and rates low when compared internationally, and for continuing to do their bit to follow public health advice and minimise the spread of Covid-19.”

O’Neale said that not knowing true infection numbers could present challenges for New Zealand down the line – making it more difficult to predict subsequent waves, reinfection rates, or the burden of long Covid.

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