Covid 19 Omicron: What new variants arrival means for NZ

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The arrival of Omicron has “thrown a spanner in the works” for New Zealand’s Covid response with a leading epidemiologist warning Kiwis to expect a “messy” 2022.

New Zealand’s first confirmed case of Omicron was announced yesterday, located at the Sudima Christchurch Airport MIQ facility.

It came on the same day New Zealand reached 90 per cent of the population fully jabbed, and Covid vaccines for kids aged 5–11 were given the green light by MedSafe.

Thousands of protesters also marched to Parliament earlier in the day, demonstrating against Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates.

Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told media yesterday afternoon the confirmed Omicron case flew into New Zealand from Germany via Dubai on December 10. They are double vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine.

The positive result was recorded on day 2, and they are now staying in a quarantine wing in a broader MIQ hotel.

Bloomfield said the Air New Zealand flight crew and the driver who took the person to their hotel would be tested, and everyone on the flight was considered a close contact.

The case would spend 14 days in MIQ and Bloomfield said that health officials would now assume all border cases were of the Omicron variant until sequencing proved otherwise.

Auckland University epidemiologist Rod Jackson said Omicron was always going to arrive in New Zealand, but the goal now was to keep it out of the community for as long as possible.

He said boosters may need to be brought forward, and international travel plans pushed back.

“Omicron demonstrates that nothing is for certain … 2022 is going to be messy.”

“It’s going to be uncertain, and Omicron has just thrown a spanner in the works. We just don’t know how bad it’s going to be.

“In terms of opening the border in January, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be booking flights in January or February.”

Last month the Government announced it planned to open the border to fully vaccinated Kiwis travelling from Australia in January – scrapping the requirement to stay in MIQ. Fully vaccinated Kiwis would be allowed to return from elsewhere in the world the following month.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has indicated they plan to review this in the new year.

Epidemiologist Siouxsie Wiles said MIQ processes would be crucial at keeping Omicron out of the community.

“We need MIQ in place. Otherwise we won’t be able to do the things we’re doing right now.”

“As always our response is just going to have to adapt to what the virus is doing.”

She had hoped Omicron would not arrive in New Zealand for another few weeks – as there was a lot that remained uncertain about the new variant.

“The astonishing thing is that we only learnt about this variant a few weeks ago so there’s still a huge amount that’s not known,” she said.

“But what we do know is already quite alarming.”

Senior Lecturer Dr David Welch said if Omicron made its way into the New Zealand community it would create our biggest outbreak yet.

“With rapid spread in Australia, the plan to allow NZ citizens to return with no MIQ from 15 January should be immediately postponed to provide certainty to those affected.

“The vaccination requirement for arrivals should be raised to three doses of the vaccine to reduce the risk of Omicron coming here.”

He said the traffic light system would also need strengthening in the event of an Omicron outbreak, as its assumptions around immunity of vaccinated people would not hold for the new variant.

Meanwhile New Zealand’s medical regulator Medsafe has granted provisional approval for the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for children aged 5–11 years old.

Jackson said the arrival of the new variant Omicron had also placed greater pressure on the rollout of vaccines for under 12s.

“The speed at which it hits the community is what overwhelms health services,” he said.

“So if you imagine an unvaccinated primary school population, especially if it is a new variant, that would just go crazy.”

“The two big things we need to do early next year are vaccinate the kids and to make sure everyone who has already been vaccinated gets a booster.”

He said we should also aim for at least 90 per cent vaccination coverage in 5–11-year-olds, as this group would be crucial for New Zealand’s overall immunity

“We’ve hit 90 per cent fully vaccinated, but that still means there’s over 400,000 eligibles that are not vaccinated. On top of that you’ve got 750,000 kids under the age of 12.”

“So that’s going to be really important for New Zealand’s immunity.”

While children generally only had mild disease, he said they could take it home and spread it.

“Primary schools in particular, that’s a super-spreading setting. There’s a primary school in Taranaki where they had 15 cases – that’s a real-life example of what happens in schools.

“Kids generally have mild disease but they take it home. And if they take it home to a multi-generational household, and they are interacting with their grandparents, you can get widespread infection.”

As the country passed the 90 per cent milestone yesterday, the Green Party has called on the Government to do more to boost the Māori vaccination rate to this level.

Green Party spokesperson for Covid-19 response Dr Elizabeth Kerekere said Māori and Pasifika children also needed to be prioritised for the rollout for children aged 5–11.

“Right now, only 76 per cent of Māori are fully vaccinated across the country, and 86 per cent first dose. The rate is considerably lower in rural areas and particularly among younger Māori.

Ninety-one new cases of Covid-19 were announced in the community.

This includes 55 in Auckland, seven in Waikato, 10 in the Bay of Plenty, one in the Lakes district, two in Northland and 16 in Taranaki.

Yesterday there were 58 people in hospital, with four in ICU. Thirty cases (57 per cent) of those in hospital were unvaccinated or not eligible.

Nine cases (17 per cent) had received one dose and 10 cases (19 per cent) were fully vaccinated. The remaining four cases (8 per cent) were unknown at this stage.

There are 2194 cases of Covid-19 in the community. The number is much lower than earlier figures due to a change in the way the Ministry of Health classifies active and recovered cases.


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