The reason behind Aussie neighbour's Delta ‘decline’

Virus-stricken Fiji announced on Wednesday 505 cases of Covid-19 in the previous 24-hour reporting period.

It was another worrying tally but down from the devastating 1,405 cases reported just six weeks earlier as the Delta variant took hold of the Pacific nation.

Fiji, with a population of just 890,000, has been brought to its knees by Covid after surviving more than a year untouched by the virus. It has recorded 46,644 cases since April.

As many other nations, including Australia, have quickly learnt, the Delta variant has been near impossible to halt.

Yet despite experts warning of catastrophic repercussions from a surging outbreak, in the previous two weeks, known virus cases have slowly begun to decline. On Tuesday the daily cases number was 184.

Confirmed cases have begun to fall in Fiji amid its Delta outbreak, but experts warn it does not paint the full picture. Source: Our World In Data
Confirmed cases have begun to fall in Fiji amid its Delta outbreak, but experts warn it does not paint the full picture. Source: Our World In Data

And while hospitals are still stretched, leading to dozens of deaths recorded weekly, including this week a six-month-old baby, there is cautious optimism a return to some sort of normality is not too far away.

On Monday, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who was initially reluctant to force the island nation into a stringent lockdown, said he envisaged opening up Fiji by November.

“We have learned a lot from when this virus first came to Fiji and I am confident it will not last long [in areas of transmission]," he told Radio Fiji One.

Covid testing has fallen after system overload

However, epidemiologist Dr Stefanie Vaccher, formerly of the Fiji Centre for Communicable Disease Control, told Yahoo News Australia the drop in cases was far from the full picture.

Fijians queueing for a dose of AstraZeneca. Source: Getty
Fijians queueing for a dose of AstraZeneca. Source: Getty

She warned testing has been limited in recent weeks, meaning daily reported infections can be deceptive.

"Routine testing for Covid-19 was stopped a few weeks ago, which has had a large impact on case numbers," she said.

"Test positivity remains high, often above 30 per cent. Combined, these two pieces of information tell us there is still a lot of Covid around."

At the peak of confirmed cases in July, the nation was routinely performing more than 3,500 tests a day. That number has since fallen to around 1,500.

Health Secretary James Fong said in August the health system was struggling to process a surge in tests and moved to target those most at risk of severe Covid-19.

The percentage of tests positive has since fallen to about 20 per cent in recent days, a possible indication spread of the virus is reducing. However, Dr Vaccher says it remains extremely difficult to predict current trends.

In a "problematic" development, Dr Vaccher says the virus is beginning to spread from Fiji's main island to smaller outer islands where testing and infrastructure to handle Covid cases is limited.

Fijian's 'incredible' vaccine feat

Accompanying a stringent lockdown, which includes a 7pm to 4am curfew, Fijians have made a concerted effort to get vaccinated in the face of its daunting outbreak, which Dr Vaccher believes has helped restrict the spread of Delta.

More than 95 per cent of its eligible adult population has now received more than one dose, while more than 46 per cent both doses.

"This is an incredible achievement and a testament to the hard work and dedication of many people," Dr Vaccher said.

"We know that vaccination protects against severe illness and death, and the majority of people who have passed away from Covid-19 in Fiji have not been vaccinated.

An "incredible" 95 per cent of eligible Fijians have received their first dose of vaccine. Source: Getty

"With such high rates of vaccination, I’m hopeful case numbers will decline, but there are lots of contributing factors to a large reduction in cases, some of which are outside peoples’ control."

Mr Bainimarama said last month the vaccination rate was something Fijians should be proud of but urged them to finish the job.

"Very few countries have matched the pace of our vaccine administration. That is reason to be proud, but not reason to be satisfied," he said.

Fiji's large population of children at risk

Dr Vaccher notes more than 30 per cent of Fiji's population is younger than 18, meaning a large proportion of the population remained vulnerable to the virus and could fuel transmission.

Fiji's Chief Medical Advisor Dr Jemesa Tudravu confirmed this week the government was looking to vaccinate children as young as 12 — a move Australia recently announced after the increasing role children have played in Victoria and NSW's outbreaks.

While she believes an elimination strategy is "increasingly untenable", Dr Vaccher said it was vital restrictions and preventative measures remained and Fijians followed the public health orders.

WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, Takeshi Kasai, said it was vital nations “stay the course" to minimise the risk posed by the Delta variant.

This week, Mr Bainimarama announced as vaccine targets were hit, a staggered easing of restrictions such as the length of curfew would be rolled out. Containment borders on the main island of Viti Levu will be scrapped at 60 per cent of adults fully vaccinated.

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