NZ reports 29 cases amid COVID gang link

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The spread of COVID-19 within New Zealand's gangs poses a tricky problem for Jacinda Ardern's government as it considers the next steps in its fight against the virus.

On Thursday, health officials reported another 29 locally acquired cases of COVID-19, with 24 in Auckland and five in Waikato.

While all five Waikato cases are inside the lockdown boundary, COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins announced an extension to the areas under restrictions, looping in towns like Kawhia and Cambridge where cases were found on Wednesday.

NZ media outlets have reported the spread of the Delta strain of the virus into the Waikato is linked to gangs, including the Mongrel Mob.

Mr Hipkins has confirmed patched gang members are among the current cluster of cases, without confirming precise numbers.

The Mongrel Mob disputes this, with the group's Waikato spokeswoman Louise Hutchinson telling Radio NZ they are being used as a scapegoat.

"This has become politically motivated," she said, insisting all gang cases were historical.

"We've had every member tested and every member of their whanau (family) tested."

Gangs in New Zealand are often linked with methamphetamine distribution and use.

Newshub reports members of the tight-knit community of Kawhia, which reported a new COVID-19 case on Wednesday, believe the virus has spread into their town from a gang member selling the drug - something the gang disputes.

At the same time, the government has approved travel exemptions into locked-down Auckland for two gang leaders to help further vaccination efforts.

Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare said the government was "engaged with the gang leadership to make sure that we can support vaccination rollout, testing and adhering to the rules".

This has upset hardliners - including many in the opposition - who want tougher action against the groups.

On Thursday, the government also announced the introduction of rapid antigen testing at two Auckland hospitals in conjunction with a self-isolation quarantine trial.

More details have also emerged of New Zealand's 28th COVID-related death, a man in his 50s who died in Auckland's Middlemore Hospital on Wednesday morning.

Radio NZ reports he was a deacon at the Assemblies of God Church of Samoa, one of the first clusters associated with this Delta outbreak which drove hundreds of infections.

The father-of-seven was in intensive care for 40 days, and his wife remains in hospital battling the virus.

"Everyone's really sad to hear the news," church spokesperson Jerome Mika said.

"The church has been fasting and praying ... because of the deacon that has passed away."

As of Thursday, there are 23 Kiwis in hospital with COVID-19, including four in intensive care.

Vaccination rates improved on Wednesday, with more than 70,000 New Zealanders jabbed - including 19,000 receiving their first dose.

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