Students likely Omicron vector: experts

Students are likely to bring Omicron with them when they move South over the coming weeks, a pair of Covid-19 researchers say.

Covid-19 modeller and University of Canterbury mathematics professor Michael Plank said that as there were eight universities and more than 200,000 students and 30,000 university staff in New Zealand, the likelihood of a spreader event happening was high.

"Large numbers of people travelling around the country are likely to accelerate the virus establishing in different parts of the country," Prof Plank said.

He did not believe postponing classes was a solution.

"We have preparations in place. Cancelling classes is disruptive and harmful in other ways."

Measures such as vaccination, masks, and ventilating classrooms helped to flatten the curve.

University of Otago epidemiologist Prof Patricia Priest said it was likely students would spread the virus.

Southern District Health Board medical officer of health Susan Jack said any student planning on coming to Otago who knew they had been at a location of interest should not travel if they were a close contact and should closely monitor for symptoms if they were a casual contact.

"Even a minor sore throat, cough, fever or runny nose, please go and get tested.

"The university does have a policy of needing people to be doubly vaxxed, which includes students going to live in halls of residence, which will really help to flatten the curve when it comes," Dr Jack said.

University of Otago’s acting vice-chancellor, Prof Helen Nicholson, said it was working with the Ministries of Health and Education to ensure students were supported.

However, Prof Nicholson did not respond to specific questions about what would happen if Omicron established itself firmly in student accommodation.

"Our Student Health team is working and planning in liaison with WellSouth PHO and public health authorities," she said.

Meanwhile, the threat of Omicron continued to take a toll on university life. The Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) announced yesterday the cancellation of Orientation Week events, including Netsky, Toga Party, OneFest, Sub Focus, Food Truck Feastival, and Clubs Day.

"We are beyond disappointed that our big music events for Ori 22 will not take place, but our priority is the safety of our students," OUSA president Melissa Lama said.

Prof Nicholson said disruptions in coming months were probable.

The university announced large events supported by the University Events Hub scheduled for February would be held virtually, not in person.

The vice-chancellor’s student welcome would be rescheduled, while the university had cancelled events scheduled for alumni at North Island centres.

National president of the Tertiary Education Union Tina Smith believed universities around New Zealand were not doing enough for students or instructors.

She worried students might drop out and staff be overworked. University leaders, managers, and some vice-chancellors were asking students to return to campus without enough preparation, she said.

At the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) chief executive Onno Mulder said it was preparing to welcome new and returning students, although changes had been made to ensure SIT remained compliant with government guidelines.