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A case of Covid-19 detected in Palmerston North has been confirmed to be the Omicron variant and an Auckland Airport worker may also have the highly transmissible strain.
In a statement, the Ministry of Health said isolation requirements have changed in an effort to "stamp out" Omicron early and take effect from today.
To help address the increased infectiousness of Omicron, as an interim measure the isolation time for all Covid cases is being extended to 14 days. It was previously 10 days.
A similar change Is being applied for close contacts where all close contacts will now isolate for 10 days. This was previous seven.
Isolation periods for cases and close contacts remain under review and are planned to change as part of the response to an Omicron community outbreak.
In total, there are 23 Covid-19 cases in the community today and 44 infections at the border. There are 18 cases in hospital, including one in intensive care.
Nine cases in Nelson
Auckland Airport case
The Ministry said today's possible airport case is not linked to previously reported Auckland Omicron cases.
The worker’s infection was detected in a routine surveillance test taken on January 18 and a positive Covid result was returned yesterday.
"Whole genome sequencing (WGS) is under way to determine the variant, though as a prudent measure, it is being treated as an Omicron case. Investigations are under way to determine the source of infection.
The Ministry said testing of household and workplace close contacts has begun. To date, one household member has returned a positive result and one has tested negative.
The case is considered to be infectious from Sunday, January 16.
Palmerston North case
The Palmerston North case, reported yesterday, was released from a Christchurch managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility on Sunday, having returned five negative tests.
They then travelled to Palmerston North and spent Monday to Wednesday visiting several stores, a supermarket and a cafe.
"Whole genome sequencing (WGS) has confirmed that the case who tested positive in Palmerston North has the Omicron variant of Covid-19," the Ministry said.
The case became symptomatic on Wednesday and returned a positive Covid test result on Wednesday evening, with WGS confirmed Thursday evening.
The Ministry said genome sequencing has identified similarities to border cases identified in Auckland, but no direct links. It has not identified any links to cases in the Christchurch MIQ facility, suggesting that the source of infection is offshore - either in the country they travelled from or during travel to New Zealand - rather than transmission in the Christchurch MIQ facility where they stayed.
This case was released on January 16, after returning a negative test result on five occasions throughout their stay.
The person travelled on flight NZ550 from Christchurch to Auckland departing at 2pm arriving into Auckland at 3.20pm. They then travelled on NZ5121 from Auckland to Palmerston North departing Auckland at 4.55pm.
"The case is considered to be infectious from Monday 17 January, however if you travelled on either of these flights, as a precautionary measure, you are asked to get a test as soon as possible. "
In a Facebook post an hour ago, MidCentral DHB - which includes Palmerston North - said there were no further cases in the region today.
Nine Covid cases in Nelson
There are nine new Covid-19 cases in Nelson today - all in the same household. Eight were notified after the Ministry’s reporting deadline, and will be added to the official tally on Saturday.
Public health officials are investigating recent travel to Auckland as the source of their infections. Testing sites are operating in Nelson and Motueka today and over the weekend.
Other community cases reported today are from Auckland (11), Waikato (1), Lakes (8) and Hawke’s Bay (3).
Meanwhile, Covid has also been detected in wastewater in Tairāwhiti despite no cases in the region.
Health officials said there were currently no confirmed cases of the infection in Tairāwhiti. Another routine sample was being tested that was taken on Tuesday. Results for that sample were expected today.
The positive result might indicate there was a person or people in the community who had an active Covid-19 infection, said officials.
According to latest modelling almost 2000 Omicron cases a day - 10 times the Delta variant peak - are expected in the Auckland region in just six weeks in the event of an outbreak.
Northland restrictions ease
As the country prepares for the highly transmissible variant to enter the community, restrictions eased this morning in Northland. The region moved into the orange setting alongside the rest of the country.
"We won't be able to stop Omicron entering the community, but we can use tools to try and slow it down. We need to be on guard, and ready so that is why the country will remain at orange on an Omicron preparedness setting," Ardern said.
Hawke's Bay now has a total of nine Covid-19 cases, with three more positive cases associated with a Hastings cluster now identified.
All three new cases are linked to the Hastings cluster, taking that cluster, which began when a positive case attended two fitness classes at a local church, to eight.
The ninth case was reported yesterday and is likely to have contracted Covid-19 out of the region.
Two of the new cases will be reported in the Ministry of Health's case figures today, with the third new case to be reported in tomorrow's figures, as it missed the daily reporting cut off.