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Omicron outbreak would move the country to Red – Expert Reaction

The Prime Minister has announced if Omicron cases spread into the community, the country will move to the traffic light system’s Red setting within 48 hours.

Jacinda Ardern also mentioned there will be changes to the country’s testing regime, with more use of Rapid Antigen Tests, which will be free to access. Additionally, Northland will move into Orange at midnight tonight.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the changes.

Dr Jennifer Summers, Epidemiologist, University of Otago, comments:

“Today’s announcements from the Prime Minister shows that the Government is aware of the pending Omicron outbreak and taking steps to address this situation. As the Prime Minister mentioned, New Zealanders can expect higher numbers of cases than we have ever experienced during this pandemic.

“However, there are concerning gaps in New Zealand’s preparation for delaying and managing an Omicron outbreak. For example, waiting to move the whole country to ‘Red’ under the traffic light system only once there are community cases of Omicron will not be sufficient – given Omicron’s higher transmissibility, and the ever-increasing number of Omicron cases at the border. The Government needs to be proactive right now, rather than waiting for community cases.

“New Zealand needs a more robust Alert Level system that is more dynamic to the changing nature of COVID-19, as the current traffic light system is not fit-for-purpose particularly when it comes to Omicron (and potential future variants) and leaves at-risk individuals/communities with less protection.

“Ruling out the possibility of future lockdowns and regional boundaries is also very worrying as the health system will be under further immense pressure once Omicron enters the community. Therefore, ruling out potential public health measures that could be used to minimise the impact of Omicron is short-sighted.

“See our recent blogs describing steps the Government could take:

  1. Preparing for Omicron: A proactive Government response is urgently needed to minimise harms
  2. COVID-19, Christmas, the New Year and Summer Holidays: What the NZ Government and individuals can do to minimise the risks.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“Omicron is knocking loudly at New Zealand’s door. With news of another potential MIQ breach today, it’s possible that Omicron will start to spread into the community within weeks if not days. Once this happens, it’s likely that case numbers will rise very quickly and we will need to use the public health tools available to us to flatten the curve and prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed. This is why the government has confirmed that, once Omicron starts to spread, the whole country will move to the red traffic light setting. This means measures like mandatory masks, social distancing and gathering size limits of 100. If hospital numbers start to spike, we may need additional measures to slow the spread.

“This is quite a different strategy to what New Zealand has used in the past, where we have managed to stamp the virus out or keep it suppressed to relatively low levels. With Omicron, it’s likely that high numbers of people will become infected. This strategy is only viable now because we have achieved high vaccination rates. Omicron also tends to be less severe than Delta, although it can still cause hospitalisation and death, particularly amongst unvaccinated people.

“Evidence shows that, for Omicron, the protection offered by the vaccine does wane over time, but is restored to very high levels by a booster dose. So it’s essential that everyone gets vaccinated and gets their booster as soon as they are eligible. Getting boosted could very well be the thing that means you have a mild infection and keeps you out of hospital.”

Conflict of interest statement: Michael Plank is partly funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“It was announced today that the whole of Aotearoa New Zealand would be shifted into the Red Traffic Light system setting within 24-48 hours should an Omicron community outbreak arise. It was also indicated that lockdowns would not be utilised in this situation.

“As we are still dealing with Delta around the country and now have Omicron cases accumulating at our borders in Aotearoa New Zealand, any new Omicron cases must be stopped and managed carefully – and kept in MIQ. It is critical Omicron is kept from spreading throughout our communities for as long as possible and to avoid our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed as they have become in Australia for example.

“Our communities in Aotearoa New Zealand are still in the process of getting their boosters and our 5-11 year old children, tamariki and tamaiki have only had access to the paediatric COVID-19 vaccine for the past 3 days. As they will have had less time than others across Aotearoa New Zealand to get their vaccine and with Omicron in the country, we must support our children, tamariki and tamaiki to get their vaccines, and also make sure that we and others coming into contact with them are up to date with our COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.

“A booster dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine gives strong immune protection against Omicron and must continue to be rolled out as quickly as possible with the appropriate prioritisation and delivery that takes into account our most vulnerable.

“There remains work to do in Aotearoa New Zealand if we want to keep everyone safe and protected from COVID-19. Omicron’s higher transmissibility could still lead to increased case numbers in our communities in Aotearoa New Zealand, and poses risk for the most vulnerable. A maintained focus on vaccination, boosters, border controls and public health measures is still needed. COVID-19 testing efforts must also continue.

“Importantly, an equity focus for rolling out boosters and vaccines moving forward that reduces barriers and build trust for whānau and communities with appropriate prioritisation, will be critical to avoid leaving anyone behind.

“Please stay safe this summer and keep others around you safe as well – by getting vaccinated, boosted, tested, following the rules and reaching out to help others do the same.”

No conflict of interest declared.