16 Dec 2021

Omicron can be kept out of NZ - Professor Baker

From Checkpoint, 6:08 pm on 16 December 2021

A public health expert wants the planned reinflation of the trans-Tasman bubble to be delayed because of the Omicron case here.

A recent returnee who flew in from Germany to Auckland via Dubai has tested positive for the variant in a Christchurch managed isolation facility.

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told Checkpoint the variant may force the planned border reopening from next January to be delayed.

He said that date should be pushed back by at least a month to mid-February.

"It's becoming the dominant variant in some of the countries overseas where travelers are coming from. So yes, it had to arrive here, but it doesn't have to get into New Zealand.

"We are actually one of the few countries in the world that still has a robust border quarantine system. I think it's just us, China, Taiwan and some states in Australia."

Baker said health authorities still did not have enough information on how much of a risk the Omicron variant posed and how sick it could make people.

Along with possibly halting travel from countries where Omicron was spreading quickly, Baker said rapid antigen testing as well as the PCR test before boarding flights would help.

"It's not right to now discriminate against southern Africa because this variant is becoming so widespread.

"We have to take a systems approach and use all the tools available to decrease the risk or minimise the risk of this variant getting loose in New Zealand."

Baker said it may not be necessary to revert MIQ rules back to the 14-day isolation period, but 10 days in a facility could be optimal.

He said all border staff should have had or be having their booster shots.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said he would be discussing with ministers about reducing the time between the second dose and the vaccine booster shot to under six months.

"The biggest decision is what's going to happen in mid-January and in February. If we had people who were self-issued at home and we had thousands of people coming in every day, which is the plan then obviously, Omicron would get in very, very rapidly."

Fully vaccinated New Zealander residents and citizens would be able to travel from Australia without having to quarantine (but having to isolate for seven days) from 11.59pm on 16 January.

That would extend to fully vaccinated New Zealanders from all countries from 11.59pm on 13 February.

He said the government needed to make a decision before people planned their travel.

"The biggest unknown with this variant is how dangerous it is, how virulent. What's the risk if you get this variant of getting serious illness, going to hospital, dying and getting long Covid - we want to know that those risks are very much less than with the current Delta variant before we can even tolerate allowing into New Zealand."

He said one case of Omicron in the community should be enough to prompt a localised lockdown.

"If you see one case in the community, it often means there are others that you can't see, and we learned this back in August with the Delta variant outbreak."

He said it was a grim scenario and an Omicron community outbreak could overwhelm the health system because "it infects a large number of people very quickly, and some of them will get really ill".