Agencies formulate plans to lessen impact of Omicron variant

Transport operators are lobbying Government to ensure food and medical supplies continue to be...
Transport operators are lobbying Government to ensure food and medical supplies continue to be delivered. Photo: Getty Images
As Omicron rages through workplaces around the world, what contingency plans are in place here to keep supply chains and health services running? Susan Sandys investigates . . .

On Sunday, health officials revealed a MIQ worker was among 25 new community cases. The Ministry of Health confirmed the worker has Omicron.

The border worker returned a positive result for Covid-19 late on Saturday afternoon and is currently in isolation, the ministry said.

Road freight operators are preparing for Omicron's arrival and the disruption it will cause to food supply chains. To do this they are calling for reconsideration of the Covid-19 home isolation period.

Nick Leggett.
Nick Leggett.
Transporting New Zealand chief executive Nick Leggett said New Zealand only needed to look at what was happening across the Tasman to see what could eventuate here.

Australian supermarket shoppers are facing lockdown deja vu as they grapple with bare shelves. Essential workers, including up to half of the country’s truck drivers, are off work as Omicron forces them into isolation due to being unwell or having tested positive to Covid-19. Some states are reducing the seven-day mandatory isolation period for essential workers.

Leggett has written a letter to Transport Minister Michael Wood, asking what the home isolation period will be for essential workers, such as truck drivers needing to deliver crucial food and medical equipment.

In New Zealand, the isolation period for fully vaccinated Covid-19 cases in the community is currently at least 10 days, including 72 hours symptom-free.

In the United States, the Covid isolation period has recently been slashed in half from 10 to five days, while the United Kingdom is considering a similar move.

Leggett said planning for Omicron was a matter of urgency, and he hoped to meet with Ministry of Health and Ministry of Transport officials this week.

“We want to try and get in front of this as much as we can, and I think the Government has an opportunity to think about the kind of rules it imposes once Omicron hits us,” he said.

New Zealand already had a truck driver shortage which had worsened in the pandemic. It has a worker shortage mirrored in a wide range of industries.

“We have to think about ways that give people the ability to rest and isolate as much possible, but also for when they are well and able to get back to work as quickly as possible so we are able to keep the country running.”

A spokesperson for the Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins said while the 10-day period remained in force, the situation would continue to be closely followed and was under constant review.

Leggett said the industry also wanted Government to consider prioritising truck drivers for booster shots and provide the industry with free rapid antigen tests.

At the same time, the organisation is advising its members to look at how they will maintain essential services as high numbers of staff fall sick.

In an advisory, it has suggested splitting staff at larger workplaces into two or more teams that are kept segregated. This was so if members of one team have an outbreak, the other team can continue working.

It has also suggested businesses consider potential sub-contractor options and flexible work hours.

Kiri Hannifin. Photo: RNZ
Kiri Hannifin. Photo: RNZ
Countdown director of corporate affairs, safety and sustainability, Kiri Hannifin, said the supermarket group was prepared for Omicron.

“We’re continuing to work with our supply chain partners to plan for and manage any additional pressures that come into play during an outbreak – including on-shelf availability,” Hannifin said.

“We have safely served millions of customers during previous outbreaks.”

Emergency services are also preparing.

A police spokesperson said for operational reasons police would not go into specifics on what resourcing and deployment would look like in an Omicron outbreak, but the organisation was “experienced at deploying to demand and managing resourcing in line with this.”

St John district operations manager - Canterbury, Curt Ward, said as New Zealand moved from a pandemic to endemic response, St John would continue to review and adapt its contingency plans.

“If there is Covid-19 identified in the community, crews will work in bubbles to limit the risk of infection spreading across different shift changes,” Ward said.

“We also have several other strategies in place to lessen the impact widespread community infection rates might have on our capability, including bolstering our recruitment and training efforts to bring on board more ambulance officers and paramedics.”

The ambulance service is already under pressure. Ward took the opportunity to warn St John was currently experiencing a high number of calls and there may be a response delay for non-urgent situations.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand did not get back by deadline.

Michael Baker.
Michael Baker.
Epidemiologist and University of Otago professor, Michael Baker, says New Zealand is on "borrowed time". 

“It will take a while for people to people to develop symptoms if they were exposed. Everyone should be aware of getting any cold or flu symptoms, which is unusual for this time of year.”

New Zealand has so far dodged a community outbreak in spite of high case numbers at the border. People are urged to get their booster shots, and take their five to 11-year-olds along for their first jab when the children’s vaccination roll-out begins on Monday.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the traffic light settings will be reviewed this week. Only Northland remains at red, after Auckland moved to orange on December 30.

But the Omicron variant may soon be introduced in the community, Baker said.

"It's the second case of local [Omicron] transmission we have had in New Zealand so it does indicate we are really on borrowed time with Omicron at the moment."

Baker said the reason the daily number of cases is dropping is due to the fact over 90% of the population is partially or fully vaccinated.

But he said the possible Omicron outbreak should be delayed as much as possible.

"We want to delay that for a period hopefully into March or even a bit beyond to give New Zealanders the chance to get boosted and vaccinate children in New Zealand," he said.

From Monday, health providers across the country can vaccinate five to 11-year-olds against Covid-19.

In preparation, over 120,000 doses of the child Pfizer vaccine has been delivered to over 500 vaccination sites.

The vaccine used for children has a lower dose and smaller volume than the adult vaccine and is administered using a smaller needle. Children will also have to wait eight weeks before receiving their second dose.

High vaccination rates could keep hospitalisations down
The Canterbury District Health Board is not anticipating high hospitalisation rates if Omicron cases surge in the community.

Dr Helen Skinner.
Dr Helen Skinner.
Senior responsible officer for the Covid-19 response Dr Helen Skinner said it was expected that when Covid-19 became endemic this summer, meaning when there were high numbers of cases throughout the region, most people would not need hospital level-care.

“With our good vaccination rates in Canterbury, vaccinated people who do get breakthrough infections will usually have mild symptoms that can safely be managed at home,” Skinner said.

But the board was unable to say yesterday by deadline what plans it has for staffing if nurses and other workers become infected.

Covid-positive nurses in Australia and the US are being recalled to work as short-staffed hospitals buckle under the outbreak.

The board has been progressively increasing hospital capacity for Covid-19 patients, on top of its current ICU capacity.

It has just received $12 million construction funding from the Government for a new negative pressure 12-bed ICU ward at Christchurch Hospital, in a vacant space in the new Waipapa building adjacent to the current ICU. It follows the opening late last month of the 32-bed Parkside Ground Medical, which can be used for acutely unwell Covid-19 patients who don’t need ICU-level care.

- Additional reporting NZ Herald

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