Covid-19 omicron outbreak: NZ moves to phase 3 of response to soaring cases

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins ... "the number of hospitalisations we have ... today sit at 205." Image: TVNZ screenshot APR

RNZ News

New Zealand will move to phase 3 of the omicron response at 11.59pm tonight, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Hipkins laid out what phase 3 includes.

While the ministry’s daily update of case numbers will come out later this afternoon, Hipkins confirmed today’s cases were “about 5000”. The actual figure was later confirmed as 6137 new cases and one death.

“This continued rise and also the number of hospitalisations we have which today sit at 205 means that we are now confirming our shift to phase 3 of our planned Omicron response. That’ll happen at 11.59pm tonight.”

He says most had been gearing up for this and it would not come as a surprise.

However, the move to phase three would not mean a “sudden lurch” in terms of additional restrictions or movements, because the traffic light system had been designed to smooth things out already.

“Our priorities now shift to isolating those with covid-19 and their household contacts to reduce the spread, while at the same time supporting supply chains and essential services to continue to operate.”

Only confirmed cases
Only confirmed cases and their household contacts – the people they lived with – would be required to isolate. All other contacts would be asked to monitor for symptoms but they would not have to isolate.

Hipkins said it was important to note that the legal requirement to isolate for cases and household contacts did not mean people who did not fit in those groups should not isolate.

“If you have a friend who has covid-19, you can make a judgment about whether you think you might be at risk … we are asking New Zealanders to accept a much greater degree of personal responsibility.”

Watch the announcement:

Today’s media briefing. Video: RNZ News

Dr Bloomfield said healthcare workforces who were essential and were household contacts were not allowed to go back to work for the first seven days but may return to work after that — three days early — if they returned a negative RAT on days five and six and were asymptomatic.

Hipkins said detailed information would be sent to schools but the principle remained the same — if you are not a household contact you are not required to isolate.

He said he acknowledged some parents were in a better situation than others.

Dr Bloomfield said people who did not respond to the text message would be followed up to confirm whether or not they needed clinical or social support to isolate.

RATs primary testing
Rapid antigen tests (RATs) will become the primary means of testing for covid-19, and will be available from thousands of sites. Millions more are expected to arrive over the coming days.

It is expected that businesses would be able to make the tests available to the public through retail outlets from March, he said.

Hipkins said RAT tests had been distributed throughout the health network.

“They’re available to people who need them … through the testing network,” he said.

“The last thing we want is people sitting on big stockpiles of them when there’s more demand elsewhere.”

Businesses have been able to import RATs since the beginning of December, but many “like ourselves, have had challenges in securing supplies because of global constraints”, Dr Bloomfield said.

He said clinics in Tāmaki Makaurau would begin rolling out supervised rapid antigen testing from today.

Testing locations
Locations where people can get a rapid antigen tests would be listed on the Healthpoint website.

He said there were 6.3 million unused tests in the country yesterday, another million arrived last night and another 10 million were expected to arrive in the coming week.

Hipkins said that because only household contacts were required to isolate, a self-assessment tool would help the government keep track of very high risk locations and the overall spread of the virus.

This included things like hospitals and aged care facilities.

Hospitalisations had become a major focus and daily case numbers would be a less important metric from now, Hipkins said.

“There’s no doubt the next few weeks are going to be pretty challenging… We just need to stick to the plan that we’ve set out as we manage a higher number of cases in our coming weeks before we reach a peak as other countries have,” he said.

Dr Bloomfield said hospitalisation rates were about 85 percent at the moment, which was “about what they usually are”, but an increase in cases would drive an increase.

Isolation plans needed
That said, “if you are unwell for any reason, you can and should seek care in our health system and that includes in our hospitals”.

Hipkins said omicron’s lower likelihood of severe illness, and high vaccination rates, were what allowed the self-management approach.

He suggested people should have an isolation plan, and talk to friends and whānau about how they would manage if they needed to isolate.

He also urged people to take up booster shots.

“You are far less likely to end up in hospital if you get covid-19 [and] if you’ve had a booster.”

He said modelling of the low-transmission scenario assumes high booster uptake.

Dr Bloomfield said two new studies confirmed the vaccine protected against getting infected in the first place and protected against severe illness.

“One of the studies, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that compared with being unvaccinated the odds of contracting omicron after receiving three doses dropped by 67 percent — two thirds — and for delta the risk declined by a stunning 93 percent.”

“So a highly-boosted population here will serve us all well.”

Covid cases among protesters at Parliament
The Ministry of Health has reported there have been at least two positive covid-19 test results among the anti-mandate protesters in Wellington.

The ministry said the infected people had been told to self-isolate.

However, it would not say if the cases were among those who had been arrested in the past few days.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said a team of staff working at the protest had caught covid-19 and while it had not been linked to protesters, it “stands to reason” the coronavirus was there.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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