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Covid-19 cases going undetected as winter approaches – Expert Reaction

Modelling revealed by the Ministry of Health shows the next Covid-19 peak could coincide with a return of winter illnesses like influenza and RSV, placing huge strain on hospitals.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield also said he believes half of Covid-19 cases in NZ are going unreported, partly due to some people having no symptoms when they catch the virus.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

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:

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been limited exposure to other viruses such as the influenza virus here in Aotearoa New Zealand, meaning there is potential risk of upcoming influenza outbreaks moving into winter. We now have more of the influenza vaccines here in Aotearoa New Zealand being made available for people – these are much needed right now.

“Although Covid-19 has been a key focus over the past two years, it is important to remember that all childhood vaccinations are still important.

“Regular childhood vaccine schedules (non-Covid-19) for children, tamariki, and tamaiki in Aotearoa New Zealand have been significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, there is potential risk of outbreaks for whooping cough, measles and other illnesses that could be prevented. A resurgence of influenza and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) could also possibly occur.

“The actual Covid-19 community case figures are also still likely higher than those being reported currently – resulting from asymptomatic cases, and the majority of new community cases being detected by rapid antigen testing (RAT), and with reliance on self-reporting of results.

“It is important to test, and to isolate – even if not showing symptoms as the virus can still be transmitted from an individual who does not have any symptoms of Covid-19.

“There is still work to be done to be prepared and look after not just ourselves, but importantly, doing our very best to protect those around us who remain vulnerable at this time.

“Immunity gaps currently exist in Aotearoa New Zealand as we move into the winter months and we need to be prepared. This includes for children, tamariki and tamaiki aged 5-11 years who still need to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The initial strong demand for the paediatric Covid-19 vaccine has been encouraging, however vaccination efforts must continue. Of those children aged 5-11 years, 54.4% of the general population have received their first Covid-19 vaccine dose (24.6% 2nd dose), and for Māori and Pacific tamariki and tamaiki, vaccination levels for first doses are at 35.4% (11.6% 2nd dose) and 47.7% (13.8% 2nd dose) respectively.

“Masks and proper ventilation within the education setting remain important for protection, particularly with children, tamariki and tamaiki aged 5-11 years still need to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Of those affected by the current outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand, a total of 303,500 or 30% (nearly 1/3) were children, tamariki and tamaiki and rangatahi aged 19 years and under, comprising 12% of all hospitalisations.

“People are also still in the process of getting Covid-19 boosters, with booster doses for the Covid-19 vaccine now readily available for 16-17 year olds in Aotearoa New Zealand. Of those in the eligible population who have received a Covid-19 booster dose, 70.8% of the general population have received theirs, and for Māori and Pacific peoples boosters levels are at 54.0% and 56.6% respectively. Inequities remain evident with respect to vaccination and booster levels, and need to be addressed with equity approaches that build trust and reduce barriers for people. It is important to note that Pacific peoples currently make up 12% of Covid-19 cases and more than double, 28% of all hospitalisations.”

No conflict of interest declared.