Spread of virus spurs Red call

All of New Zealand is now in the Red traffic light zone for the first time, after confirmation that cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 had been found in both the North and South Islands.

Yesterday morning Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called an unscheduled press conference, during which she followed through on her promise late last week that New Zealand as a whole would move to Red as soon as evidence of community transmission was found.

Southern health officials responded immediately, leaders being called in to work yesterday afternoon for a meeting to confirm local arrangements for life in Red.

Locals also reacted quickly to the news, and a queue quickly formed at Te Kaika drive-in vaccination centre in Victoria Rd as people sought either primary Covid-19 vaccinations or booster shots.

A multitude of major southern events scheduled for the next few weeks immediately fell foul of the escalation to Red, with the Masters Games and the Dunedin Craft Beer and Food Festival notable cancellations.

Organisers said given the change to Red and scenarios predicting that in a worst-case scenario the South could have as many as 25,000 active cases of Covid-19 at the peak of an Omicron outbreak, they had little choice but to cancel.

Southern District Health Board acting quality and clinical governance executive director Hywel Lloyd said he was heartened people were getting vaccinated and hoped testing rates would also increase.

"I’m expecting that within days I will get the call from Public Health saying that we have got a case, and once that happens our hospitals will go up alert levels accordingly," Dr Lloyd said.

Local contract tracers were already helping the national response to identify potential community cases and the rest of the health workforce remained poised for the arrival of Omicron, he said.

"Our response is completely different to the lockdown approach and we have sent messages to staff reminding of that.

"They are all double-vaxxed and most of us have been boosted as well, so we have safety measures in place and are prepared... it’s not just about freedom of choice, it’s about protecting the vulnerable."

Cars queue at Te Kaika drive-in vaccination centre in Victoria Rd, Dunedin, yesterday. PHOTO:...
Cars queue at Te Kaika drive-in vaccination centre in Victoria Rd, Dunedin, yesterday. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
WellSouth chief executive Andrew Swanson-Dobbs was confident that general practices and community health centres had done enough planning for Omicron, and provision had been made for additional testing and vaccination capacity if needed.

"Our planning and supplies have taken into account whether we are using PCR or rapid antigen testing for Covid-19 and ensuring the distribution network for both in our region for access to patients has been ongoing for weeks."

SDHB contingency planning has envisaged as much as a quarter of the hospital workforce being off work ill at the height of an Omicron outbreak, and Mr Swanson-Dobbs said primary health workers would be under similar strain.

"We must remember that the health workforce is also part of our community and is likely to get Covid as well, so we need to make sure that we are kind to each other but also plan for spending time at home with Covid or helping loved ones or buddies who might have it."

The Government’s Covid-19 website has a planning document online to help people plan for managing during the expected outbreak.

Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins said the city was well prepared for the move to Red, largely due to its high vaccination rate.

"It is now more important than ever to get a vaccination or boosted, wear a mask and contact trace," he said.

"This is not lockdown, there are no travel restrictions, businesses will remain open and schools will reopen as planned."

Omicron cases were detected in Auckland and Palmerston North late last week, but the catalyst for the Government’s decision to move to red was a Nelson family which went to Auckland for a wedding last week while likely and unwittingly infectious with Omicron.

Multiple flights and airport transfers were listed as locations of interest yesterday, both in connection with that family and with a flight attendant who has also tested positive.

An Auckland aged residential care worker associated with the Nelson family had also tested positive for Covid-19, prompting the immediate lockdown of the Summerset by the Park rest-home in the Auckland suburb of Flat Bush.

Ms Ardern, whose wedding is among the many long-planned events now postponed due to Omicron, said the Government’s strategy was to try to slow the spread of Covid-19, but she left no-one under any illusion that she was not expecting there to be thousands of cases of the disease.

"In due course we know we will see far more cases than we have in the two years of the pandemic to date, but the difference to previous outbreaks is that we are vaccinated and we are even better prepared."

Ms Ardern said that initially, while New Zealand had up to 1000 cases a day or fewer of Covid-19, health workers would attempt to stamp out outbreaks of the disease.

She also announced that details would be released on Wednesday of a new Red "Stage Two" phase, a transition period towards "Stage Three", when cases were in the thousands per day.

"We will then make changes to contact tracing, the definition of contacts and isolation requirements.

"Details of this stage of the outbreak will be provided on Wednesday, but it’s worth nothing that we don’t expect to be at this stage for a few weeks."

Ms Ardern stressed that vaccination was crucial to softening the impact of Omicron, and queues at Te Kaika drive-in vaccination centre in Dunedin yesterday suggested that her message was getting through.

Chief executive Albie Laurence said about 440 shots were given on Saturday and the centre dispensed 637 shots yesterday, many of which were booster shots.

Many staff were called in on what had been due to be their day off, and vaccine stocks would need to be replenished to meet the expected demand this week, he said.

Yesterday the Ministry of Health announced 24 new cases of Covid-19 in the community, but having announced more than 30 locations of interest over the weekend case numbers are predicted to soon start increasing.


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