18 Feb 2022

Dr Bryan Betty suggests change of mindset with Omicron

From Checkpoint, 5:23 pm on 18 February 2022

It is time for a change in the mindset when it comes to Covid, says Dr Bryan Betty, who is medical director of Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners.

Dr Betty told Checkpoint he has been supportive of the approach to Covid-19 but the situation in the pandemic had changed rapidly, and New Zealand's stance should too.

"For the last two years we've dealt with Covid in the sense of Delta, which is a very dangerous disease, we've had an elimination strategy ... and I think it's built up quite a fear or anxiety in the community about Covid. 

"However, in the last four to five weeks, the situation has changed dramatically with Omicron, which is not Delta - it's much more like a common cold, flu-like illness. And I think we need to move into a space very rapidly of thinking we're going to live with this and get back to some sort of normality."

On Monday, the Ministry of Health issued a statement advising that of the 20,000 swabs taken in Auckland, about 80 to 90 percent of those who turned up didn't need to.

As a result of the anxiety, asymptomatic people were showing up for testing, Dr Betty said.

"We don't have the capacity to test those [asymptomatic people] at the moment, but it is a reflection of the anxiety that's in the community at the moment, and I think we need to start to move away from this."

Language in reports, like 'healthcare emergencies', was unhelpful in moving forward, he said.

"We need to be de-escalating this down to get into a position where most of us are just going to have a mild to moderate illness, that we're going to get through like any respiratory illness in winter, and we need to be moving on, and perhaps the way we're approaching it at the moment is causing more problems than good, and we may have reached a pivot point with that."

One way to lessen the climate of anxiety and fear was to acknowledge that for most people Omicron would be manageable and look at reducing isolation requirements, he said.

"Yes, some people will end up in hospital, we know that's the case, but this is just part of the normal viral illness that we've now got living with us at this point and we need to take a step back. 

"As part of that process, I would expect very rapidly that the isolation guidelines that we have got in place at the moment would start to be cut back quite rapidly."

Dr Betty said he expected isolation requirements would ultimately go down to three days at some point.

Dr Betty said he was also concerned that Covid-19 was putting a freeze on things like healthcare programmes, including childhood immunisation rates, which he said had fallen to 76 percent.

"I'm really worried about measles or whooping cough showing itself up again. And these are actually dangerous conditions that I believe could have the potential to start to be with us again because Covid is dominating our discourse at this point."

GPs were also raising concerns about the pressure as many people seek advice about Covid-19, he said.