New Zealand is on the brink of another Omicron wave, kenners waarsku, with average cases rising as immunity wanes, more infectious variants arrive, and winter sets in.
Public health experts, egter, are concerned that the public and government are primarily focused on “moving on” from the virus, after the country transitioned out of its Covid elimination strategy – and are not taking the necessary steps to try to reduce transmission.
“There is every indication that … the pandemic is getting more intense in New Zealand,” said Prof Michael Baker, a public health expert at the University of Otago.
Cases have been steadily increasing and on Tuesday the country’s seven-day rolling average of community cases was 7,246, vanaf 5,480 this time last week and its highest point in over a month. Daily death rates and cases in hospital are also rising – this week marked 487 mense in die hospitaal, the highest rate since late April.
Op Dinsdag, reported cases spiked to 9,629. Responding to the numbers, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said she had “no expectation” that stricter Covid restrictions would be required. “Keep in mind we have really important rules at the orange setting that are there to protect us," sy het gese.
Microbiologist and Covid-19 communicator Dr Siouxsie Wiles said continuing with business as usual was based on “wishful thinking”.
“I think there’s been this narrative around the world that you just get infected and get it over and done with," sy het gese. “None of these things were guaranteed.
“There’s an element of wishful thinking, and there’s an element of ‘if we ignore it will go away’ – but of course that’s not what happens to problems when you ignore them.”
“We need to do better,” Baker said. “We need to think quite clearly about [die] scenarios. If we carry on with this rate of transmission and mortality – in the order of 12-14 deaths a day – we’re hitting as many as 5000 deaths a year from the pandemic. That would add 15% to our annual mortality rate. Dit is 15 times the road toll. Dit is 10 times the mortality from influenza.”
Faced with a growing body of evidence that people can be reinfected with Omicron within weeks of infection, the government last week changed its advice to isolate if you test positive within three weeks – rather than the previously recommended 90 dae.
Baker said recent data on the Omicron variants indicated that people can be re-infected within weeks – a blow to hopes that combined immunity from infection and vaccination would provide countries with a clear pathway out of the pandemic.
Baker cited a large pre-print study from Veterans Affairs in the US, which has yet to be peer-reviewed. It found that when people were reinfected, their likelihood of long-term or serious complications remained similar each time, rather than diminishing – as hoped – from increased immunity.
Baker said that meant each infection could be “a roll of the dice” for long Covid, organ damage, mental health and neurological effects and serious illness.
“We’ve got very stark choices,” Baker said. “I think we have to decide: what level of infection can we tolerate, given what we know about this virus?”
“What’s so frustrating is that we do have tools in our toolkit that will help reduce transmission,” Wiles said.
Bakker, Wiles and other public health professionals are calling on the government – and wider New Zealand public – to embrace strategies like masks, ventilation, and self-isolation, which would delay spread of the virus without bringing daily life to a halt.