AUCKLAND, New Zealand — When New Zealand, for the first time in months, reported a case of community spread of the coronavirus on Aug. 17, residents sprang into action. They stripped supermarket shelves of pasta and toilet paper, dug socked-away masks out of drawers and fled to vacation homes in the mountains or at the beach.
Hours later came the expected announcement: The country, after that single case of the Delta variant, would plunge into a highly restrictive three-day lockdown. New Zealand, one of the last countries to still pursue “Covid zero,” would aim to eliminate the virus once again, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference that day.
“While we know that Delta is a more dangerous enemy to combat,” she said, “the same actions that overcame the virus last year can be applied to beat it.”
Two weeks later, New Zealand is still in lockdown, one that will last at least another 14 days. One case has become nearly 700, with almost three dozen requiring hospitalization. And the familiar playbook that has made New Zealand an envied model throughout the pandemic is struggling to contain a much more contagious variant of the virus.
“The challenge is eliminating Delta,” said Rodney Jones, an adviser to the New Zealand government on the pandemic. “No country has eliminated Delta.”
For now, New Zealand appears nearly unified behind the effort to try, with lockdown compliance high and faith in public health officials strong. But Ms. Ardern and other leaders have begun to acknowledge that New Zealand may eventually have to change course as the virus continues to spread — 75 new cases were reported on Wednesday, up from around 50 each of the two previous days — and its vaccination campaign lags. That would mean tolerating some spread of the virus to keep society more open, a strategy pursued to varying degrees in almost every developed country.