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Managing Covid-19 at home – Expert Reaction

With Phase Two now in effect, health authorities have detailed how most people with Covid will manage their infections at home as the health system focuses more on those at greater risk of severe illness.

As daily case numbers continue to rise, digital technology will play a larger role in how health services communicate with people throughout the duration of their infection.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Dr Andrew Chen, Research Fellow, Koi Tū – Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, comments:

“The Ministry of Health today released more information about the self-reporting mechanisms to help public health officials collect the information they need at scale as the number of cases of COVID-19 ramps up. We are approaching a stage of the pandemic that we have never been at in New Zealand – but we have seen what has happened overseas and been able to learn from those experiences. One of the critical challenges with contact tracing is system capacity. The key bottleneck is that under normal procedures, a human calls a case to inform them of their positive test result, and humans then have a conversation to collect information about their symptoms, where they have been, and who else they may have exposed to the virus. When we have thousands or tens of thousands of cases a day that is not tenable.

“The Ministry of Health has released a digital form that will allow people with COVID-19 to self-report a lot of this information digitally. They will be informed about their positive test result with a text from 2328, the same number that vaccine messages are sent from. The contact tracing form asks for a lot of the same information that would be provided in a verbal conversation, and guides people through different pages to provide that information. It is expected that on average the form will take 30 minutes to complete, which may seem like a burden but it is a shorter time than the verbal conversations usually last. People who don’t complete the form may still get a phone call or similar to follow up.

“Importantly, through this form cases will also have the opportunity to highlight their wellness and welfare requirements, such as needing food delivered to them so that they can continue to safely isolate. We know that in order for people to comply with isolation requirements it has to be made as easy as possible for them, and so this is one way to help identify challenges so that the system can respond. People will also be able to self-report their rapid antigen test (RAT) results via MyCovidRecord, both to have a central record of those results and to be able to report a positive result and trigger processes to ensure there is appropriate care.

“Not everyone will have access to digital devices that enable them to self-report – we know that only about 80 per cent of the population are considered digitally included, and there are many reasons for why people may not be able to fill out the form digitally including those with lower English literacy. The existing human-based system will still be running, including phone-based interviews and potential home visits in remote areas as we have relied on through the rest of the pandemic. But for those who are able to provide information digitally, that takes demand away from the manual system. If we have 800 people filling out a form digitally and 200 people needing phone calls, that is still a lot better than 1000 people needing phone calls. So it is important that people who are able to do their part do so.

“Using NZ COVID Tracer is still important, both in terms of scanning QR codes and using Bluetooth Tracing. These systems have not been switched off yet, and even if they are turned off during the peak of Phase 3, we will need these tools on the other side when we get the virus back under control. These tools will still help people be notified if they are at high risk venues, where it is even more important that people isolate. People who are saying that they don’t want to use these tools because they don’t want to be identified as a close contact and have to isolate are potentially not only hurting themselves and their own ability to get diagnosed and treated, but also potentially the community around them if they unknowingly spread the virus to others. There are many people who cannot use these tools (e.g. because they don’t have access to digital devices), so it is important that those of us who can, do.”

Conflict of interest statement: I have had interactions with the Ministry of Health around digital contact tracing in an academic capacity, but am not employed or paid by them.

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:

“Omicron is spreading rapidly across Aotearoa New Zealand, with 1160 new community COVID-19 cases reported today – the highest number of new cases ever to be recorded thus far.

“The whole of Aotearoa New Zealand has been shifted into Phase 2 of the Government’s Omicron response plan, with a focus on slowing down the spread of the virus and especially taking care of the most vulnerable.

“Phase 2, otherwise known as the ‘Transition Phase’, also has a strong emphasis on self-management, where cases have spread further in the community with higher numbers, and there remains the need still to minimise and slow further spread. Phase 2 is also planned to include providing assistance to vulnerable communities at the same time.

“Digital technologies will be utilised more during this Phase as cases grow and will enable and support associated communications for those impacted to occur via text, mobile phone and information via email. Importantly, support must also be available and accessible for those who are not digitally enabled.

“Those who test positive for COVID-19 will be notified by text messaging, and again at the end of their self-isolation period. Cases will isolate for 10 days, and contacts for seven. My Covid Record will also be accessible for critical workers to report their rapid antigen test results. A COVID-19 health hub site will be available tomorrow.

“Even though this Omicron outbreak is occurring against the backdrop of high COVID-19 vaccination rates, the increasing COVID-19 case numbers will place added pressure on our health and other support systems in Aotearoa New Zealand, with true COVID-19 cases likely to be much higher than this right now.

“The evidence indicates a booster shot is still needed to protect against the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“We are also still in the process of protecting vulnerable communities that include our children, tamariki and tamaiki aged 5-11 years. Inequities with respect to Māori and Pacific peoples, tamariki and tamaiki are again showing in booster and vaccination levels and need to be addressed.

“With respect to COVID-19 vaccination, boosters, testing and prevention and protection efforts, an equity focus that reduces barriers and builds trust for people will help people get the help and services they need at the time they need it.

“There is work for us all to do to stay safe and keep others protected as well – please get vaccinated, boosted, tested, isolate if needed, wear a mask, have a plan and follow the public health measures, and most importantly, reach out to others around you and help them do the same as well.”

No conflicts of interest declared.