Covid testing capacity increased, mask mandate changes

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Cabinet has decided to update mask mandates for the country as Omicron cases in the community increase.

Today, 10 new Omicron cases were reported and the variant has appeared in Tauranga after earlier being detected in Auckland and Motueka.

Masks must now be worn at businesses which serve food and drink, the PM said.

In practice, diners will now be asked to wear masks when getting up from a table to use the bathroom.

"We're also now requiring that a face covering be an actual mask," Ardern said.

This means the use of T-shirts pulled up over the mouth or other haphazard measures will be discouraged.

Children on publicly-funded school trips will be required to wear face masks, Ardern added.

"These adjustments will slow the spread of the virus."

The new rules take effect on Thursday, February 3.

Ardern said overseas evidence showed face mask use helped combat the spread of Omicron.

The PM said essential workplaces such as those in the health, supply chain and supermarket sectors will get more access to rapid antigen tests (RATs).

"This is to allow a 'test to return to work' approach.

"For now those, PCR tests are best," Ardern added.

She said capacity existed for 60,000 tests a day existed, with surge capacity to nearly 78,000 tests a day.

But more than 40 million RATs kits had been ordered.

Ardern said nine rapid test types were already approved for use but various different rapid test types had widely differing degrees of accuracy.

Ardern confirmed that Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall would provide more information on the next stage of the pandemic response tomorrow.

The PM encouraged workplaces which were not customer-facing to decide on how to best implement a practical mask use policy.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield joined Ardern at the press conference and discussed RATs tests and orders.

"The challenge is getting confirmation of delivery ... against those orders."

He said RATs would probably be more widely used in the second and third stages of the Omicron response.

Ardern said if Omicron cases grew, rapid tests would be used more often.

Ardern said a surge in PCR testing capacity was independent of any rapid test issues, and not compensatory for a lack of RATs kits.

"In this early stage, when we're stamping it out and seeking to stamp it out, PCR remains our best solution."

'Omicron source may never be established'

Ardern also said the source of the current Omicron outbreak may never be established, she said.

"We know from overseas experience that timeois of the essence with Omicron."

She urged anyone eligible for a booster shot to get one as soon as possible.

"As we saw with Delta around the world, high rates of vaccination ... play a major role in preventing widespread outbreaks."

Ardern addressed media at the Beehive this afternoon.

The country is in its second full day under nationwide red traffic light restrictions, where gatherings of more than 100 people are banned.

New Zealand is currently in the first stage of the Government's planned response to Omicron.

The stage is effectively the same elimination strategy used against earlier variants, but Ardern has signalled wiping out Omicron in the medium-term will not be possible.

As a result, the Government anticipates moving to a second, transitional stage once daily cases exceed 1000, perhaps in a few weeks.

The intermediate stage is so far not clearly defined but will include adjusting health measures to focus on people at greater risk of severe illness from Omicron.

The third stage, if cases are in the thousands, will redefine tracing, contacts and isolation requirements.

Some third stage details will probably be revealed tomorrow, when Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall and Bloomfield are expected to address media.

Genome sequencing experts have told the Herald that refining contact definitions and more efficiently tracking contacts will be essential to stop the tracing system failing under the strain of many cases.

Ardern on Sunday indicated advice on face mask use would be assessed and updated if necessary this week.

The PM said any change to mask advice would depend on evidence gathered from overseas about which masks were most effective against the virus.

The National Party today beseeched the Government to move fast on Covid-19 treatments, including the drugs Lagevrio and Paxlovid.

National's pandemic response spokesman Chris Bishop today said both these treatments were approved for use in Britain and the US.

"With Omicron now in our community and with cases likely to increase quickly, we need access to these next generation Covid-19 treatments fast."

He said initial results showed Paxlovid massively reduced hospital admissions among Covid-positive people who were at high risk of severe illness.

Bishop said New Zealand purchased 60,000 courses but Paxlovid was not approved here yet and supply would not arrive until April.

The US Food and Drug Administration said Paxlovid contained a medication to stop Covid-19 from replicating, and was taken as three tablets.

Medsafe's website today said Paxlovid was indicated for the treatment of adult patients with symptomatic confirmed Covid-19 infection.

"Pfizer has provided some data to Medsafe for the rolling assessment but still needs to provide further data as it becomes available," the Medsafe site added.

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