Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Derek Cheng – The new era of damage control from now and for the foreseeable future


Today marks not only day one of phase 3 of the Government’s Omicron response plan, but also a completely new shift in how we are dealing with Covid-19.

The upshot is this: The virus will be everywhere and you will come into contact with it. The Government will do so much to keep you safe, and the rest is up to you.

So far, New Zealand has avoided most of what the rest of the world has had to endure. We’ve had far fewer deaths per capita compared to OECD countries and – with some lockdown interruptions including a prolonged one in Auckland last year – most people have been able to go about their lives as if in a Covid-free haven.

But now it is widespread, and soon it will be everywhere. From now on, we are in damage control.

It’s worth noting that Omicron is less severe than Delta, and most people who are fully boosted won’t suffer severe health effects.

For the unvaccinated, though, who number just over one million Kiwis, Omicron poses a similar threat to one’s health as the original strain, according to epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker.

Yesterday health boss Ashley Bloomfield reached for the “act as if you have Covid” line that was used at the start of the pandemic. It may have seemed too much, but it was simpler than throwing up a host of factors to weigh up when deciding whether to head out.

Are you boosted? Are the people you’re going to meet? Are any of them elderly or immunocompromised? Are you meeting indoors or outdoors? Who is or isn’t wearing a mask?

If you’ll be around strangers, what are the vaccination and booster levels in your region?

If going to a bar, remember that the vaccine pass doesn’t require a booster shot, which would provide greater protection for you and everyone else there.

Evidence suggests that two doses gives only up to 10 per cent protection against Omicron five to six months after a second jab, jumping to 60 to 75 per cent after a third dose.

The Government could have made the vaccine pass more fit for Omicron but decided not to, perhaps wary of the possibility of stoking social division at a time when more trust than ever is being placed on Kiwis to do the right thing.

Another area where the Government could have done more is Rapid Antigen Tests.

If a third of those who are vaccinated won’t feel any symptoms after catching Omicron, as Bloomfield said yesterday, then it would have been prudent to have RATs widely available to the general public so people could test themselves before going to visit, for example, a loved one in a retirement home.

But RATs won’t be available in retail outlets until some time next month.

Without this extra layer of defence, many may simply opt-out of social life and be in self-imposed lockdown or semi-lockdown, unwilling to leave the house except for essential reasons.

This is already happening in Auckland, where the virus is more prevalent than in the rest of the country, and especially for those who are, or live with, the vulnerable.

Others who are poorer or short on time won’t have that luxury.

In coming weeks, infections and hospitalisations will fall increasingly disproportionately on the vulnerable, who also for many reasons typically live in areas with lower vaccination levels.

“The pattern of who is disproportionately affected by Covid around the world is well established – people with disabilities, indigenous populations, people of colour, and people on lower incomes or in precarious work bear the brunt of infections,” said Covid-19 modeller Dr Dion O’Neale.

“The move in Aotearoa of people being expected to look after themselves as best they can will mean we move further down that path of driving infections towards the most vulnerable populations.”

The key question, as it was with the Delta outbreak last year, is whether the health system will be overwhelmed.

There were 205 cases in hospitals yesterday, which were 85 per cent occupied, and two cases in ICUs, which were 62 per cent occupied.

Those numbers will go up, with the flow-on effect of more health staff becoming infected, and other procedures being deferred.

The best way to minimise this, if you’re one of the one million Kiwis who are eligible for a booster but still haven’t had it, is to go and get it.

“Compared with being unvaccinated, the odds of contracting Omicron after receiving three doses dropped by 67 per cent. For Delta, the risk declined by a staggering 93 per cent,” said Bloomfield, citing a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Omicron peak is meant to hit in the next three to six weeks, but damage control will continue for the foreseeable.

After the peak, where Omicron would have infected many who aren’t boosted or vaccinated, there will be a flattening of the curve – as has happened overseas.

“But the virus will be circulating in our population – that will be a new state for us,” Baker said.

“It will remain an ever-present threat.”

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