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How to avoid spreading Covid this Christmas – Expert Reaction

Covid-19 cases continue to rise as we head into the first summer holiday period with widespread community transmission.

With end-of-year parties and family gatherings being planned, Te Pūnaha Matatini have put together a guide on how to have a Covid-safe event.

The SMC asked experts what people should be aware of as they plan events this summer. 

Associate Professor Michael O’Sullivan, Deputy Director – Te Pūnaha Matatini, comments:

“We’ve learned a lot about Covid-19 over the last three years. One of the big learning experiences for Te Pūnaha Matatini was in July this year, when we held our first in-person annual hui since the Covid-19 pandemic began. We wanted this hui to be safe for people to attend, so we took precautions like asking everyone to take a RAT each day before attending, wearing masks, booking a well-ventilated venue, providing an online option for attendance, keeping doors and windows open, and monitoring CO2. We made sure to make RATs and masks freely available so that everyone was able to access them.

“This approach worked, and we have applied it to all the major events that we have organised since, and have prevented Covid-19 spread at all of them. At every event that we have organised in the second half of 2022, pre-event RATs have identified asymptomatic positive cases. This meant that they were able to not attend, and not spread Covid-19.

“With conference season approaching, we published practical advice based on our experiences to help other people who are organising events. This guidance is equally applicable to festive gatherings and family events as Christmas approaches, and I encourage you to take a look and consider making use of some of the suggested precautions. Choose the ones that you think are best for your event and the vulnerability of its attendees – you don’t have to go as hard as we have.

“By doing a few simple things, you can dramatically decrease the risk to your friends, colleagues and loved ones over the Christmas period.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am the deputy director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, who published this guidance.

Associate Professor Lynn McBain, Head of Department of Primary Health and General Practice, University of Otago, Wellington:

“Some guidance around avoiding Covid at holiday events might include:

  • Plan an event in a well ventilated space that is large enough for people to be comfortably spaced.
  • An outdoor event / outdoor area is preferable.
  • Be time limited in your event.
  • Consider making masks freely available and support those who choose to wear masks.
  • Make it easy for people to use hand sanitiser.
  • If you are feeling unwell at all – please do not attend the event (and organisers please don’t pressure people into attending if they choose not to).”

No conflict of interest declared.

David Welch, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Computational Evolution and School of Computer Science, University of Auckland, comments:

“We are right in the midst of the third Covid wave, with infections at their highest level since June. With almost 6000 cases per day being reported, between 2 or 3 out of every hundred people in the country are currently infected. We can expect roughly these levels of infection to persist through to Christmas. So at any sizeable gathering of people, there is a high chance that someone will infected and may infect others. Therefore it is a good idea to keep a few simple rules in mind to minimise the chances of transmission.

“Covid is primarily spread through the air. Hold events outside, or in very well ventilated venues. If you are inside, don’t be shy to open up windows and doors, and turn on fans.

“When travelling on crowded planes or buses, wear a mask. If you are wearing a mask, make sure it is a good one – that is, check it fits well and is of the KN95, N95, or P2 standard. The blue surgical masks are not much good, though are better than nothing.

“Testing is a great tool to detect infections, so make good use of RATs. If organising a family event, get everyone to take a RAT test before the event, especially if vulnerable older people are attending. If you are all gathering together from different parts of the country, test for the first few days after travelling. Finding infections early and getting infected people to isolate can stop the spread. If you have symptoms but are testing negative, keep on testing for the first 4 or 5 days and isolate or wear a mask anyway.

“And if you have had Covid and want to visit friends or family at the end of the 7 day isolation period, be safe by taking another RAT test. A positive test means you are still infectious. If you visit people anyway, socialise outside or wear a mask.

“It is also worth remembering that reinfections are common now, with about half of all infections thought to be reinfections. While a recent infection confers a good degree of protection against reinfection, immunity wanes fairly quickly. So anyone infected more than a couple of months ago is susceptible to reinfection, and the longer it has been the more susceptible we are.”

Conflict of interest statement: David receives funding from ESR to provide advice to ESR and the Ministry of Health on genomic surveillance and analysis.

Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“It’s almost three years since the pandemic started, and I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing it was over. But it’s not and we’re currently experiencing our third Omicron wave. The good news is, there are some easy things we can all do to reduce the risk of being sick or making someone else sick this festive season and summer holiday.

“The virus spreads best in crowded and badly ventilated spaces, so where a mask on public transport including planes, open windows and doors if you are inside, or have your gatherings outside if possible. Another good thing is to make use of rapid antigen tests (RATs). Swab your mouth/throat and then nose and if you test positive, it means you are probably infectious. Getting everyone to take a test before meeting up and stay away if they test positive, reduces the chance of COVID gatecrashing your gathering.

“You can get free RATs from Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand, even if you don’t have any symptoms. Just visit the Request a RAT website.

“To find out how likely it is someone infectious will be at your gathering, check out this handy online tool made by Wayne McDougall.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“Getting through the pandemic in the best possible shape always depends on effective risk assessment and management. Now that the Covid-19 virus is widespread, assessing and managing risk is a shared responsibility for all of us.

“Covid-19 infection risk is now high in Aotearoa New Zealand. We have the usual driver of greater social mixing at end of the year and Christmas events plus holidays with family and friends. Added to that is the growing third Omicron wave which greatly increases the chance that people you are meeting with are infected and infectious.

“One of the biggest barriers to action is exceptionalism, where we somehow imagine that that pandemic will not affect us. The science tells us that all of us are vulnerable to Covid-19, with a risk of reinfection in as little as a few weeks after each infection. It is also important to recognise that it can have serious consequences for people of any age, particularly from long Covid. And understanding that there are measures we can take that are highly effective at reducing our risk of infection and protecting those around us.

“There are several different situations where we need to apply these protective measures. Firstly, there is protecting ourselves. Obviously being up to date with vaccines and boosters is essential. After that, it is recognising that Covid-19 transmits very effectively in crowding indoor environments. Try to avoid these situations, but if you are forced into packed shopping malls and buses, wear a high performing respirator style mask (eg N95).

“The second context is protecting others. This is about self-isolating and testing if symptomatic and not going to work and social events if unwell. It is also about organising safe events if you are in this role – the TPM guidelines are very useful in that regard. They emphasise the benefits of organising events in well ventilated places. Many social events involve eating and drinking where masks cannot be worn, so it is important to consider additional measures such as pre-event RAT testing to provide some additional protection.

“Human connection is vital for our health, wellbeing, and enjoyment of life so it is important we socialise with family, friends, and workmates. At the same time, relatively small adjustments in how we do these things can ensure we enjoy the holiday period in relative safety.”

No conflict of interest.