11 Mar 2022

Covid-19 briefing: 'People need to remain vigilant' - Auckland health leaders

7:35 pm on 11 March 2022

Auckland health authorities remain cautiously optimistic that the Omicron outbreak may have peaked in the country's biggest city, even though 601 of the 856 people in hospital with Covid-19 are in Auckland.

Clinical leads Dr Andrew Old, Dr Anthony Jordan and Dr Christine McIntosh at the Northern Region Health Coordination Centre are giving details on the Covid-19 response.

Watch live here:

Dr Old confirmed there were seven new deaths of people with Covid-19 to report today.

"It highlights that although Omicron is a mild illness for many people, for some it is not. Every death is a tragedy and our thoughts and condolences are with the families and loved ones of the people who have passed away."

He remained cautiously optimistic about the situation in Auckland.

"Our three-day rolling average of cases is about 8500 per day, which is down from a peak of about 14,000.

"Today in Auckland was the first time since this started that we had fewer people in hospital with Covid at 8am this morning than we did yesterday. One day is not a trend, but certainly that is the first time."

At Counties Manukau, the number of people coming through the door at ED is lower than it was last week. It was too early to call it, he said, but there were some encouraging signs.

Dr Old said health services in some cases were managing on a day-to-day, shift-by-shift, or hour-by-hour basis.

"I would say that we are in a crunch at the moment, so a lot of our services are operating at what's called minimum service delivery, so a lot of those sort of more routine, corporate type activities are being put on hold."

He said authorities knew not every case had been detected, but there was good testing coverage, with about 15 percent of people enrolled with a GP in Auckland having been tested in the past fortnight.

The average age of people in hospitals is still relatively young, but as the total hospitalisations have risen, more older and vulnerable members have been affected.

Dr Old said this was a trend that matched those seen overseas, and Omicron tended to have a long tail, with more vulnerable and older populations more likely to be affected towards the end of outbreaks.

"People need to remain vigilant to protect those in our families and communities who are at greater risk."

He said it was a mild illness for most people but a more severe illness for other people you could pass it on to.

Another reason to remain vigilant is the problem of long Covid, he said. What was known about long Covid from other variants should give pause, he said.

He urged people to keep up mask use and good hygiene as it will make a real difference as we start to come out of the outbreak and beyond.

He said authorities were expecting hospitalisations to increase again this week and they have. As a percentage of current active cases this remains about 0.5 percent, and across the whole outbreak about 1.5 percent of cases have been treated in hospital.

Dr Old said that was likely to be an overestimate, because not all infections were being reported and counted.

'We know it's pretty tough out there'

Dr McIntosh said in the peak of the outbreak the whole system was feeling the strain.

"We know it's pretty tough out there and we know that you're doing a phenomenal job."

She said it was not just the staff in Auckland, it was the system and workers across the whole country who were supporting the health efforts.

She said it was important that people with severe or worsening symptoms to seek help and call 111 without delay.

"Your GP and healthline are there to help you if you need it ... we would rather help and help you manage a worsening illness at the earlier stages than wait until someone is really dangerously ill."

Dr McIntosh said there were pressures within GP practices and the primary care organisation leads were met with every day, and those issues are discussed.

"But indeed it is pretty stretched ... the crunch is on, as Andrew says."

She said practices are making decisions for themselves about prioritisation at an individual level.

The isolation period is dropping for cases and household contacts from 10 days to seven days at 11.59pm tonight. Dr McIntosh said this was appropriate, but if people were still feeling ill after seven days it was better to stay home.

For people isolating from midnight tonight, the seven-day rule will also apply to them.

In Auckland, a Covid triage tool has been developed to help sort the large number of cases, she said.

"As a collective we work together to contact and support these people as needed."

Leadership teams clear out the bins

Dr Old said health teams were going to incredible lengths to continue to deliver the highest possible care.

In Counties Manukau DHB, public health nurses have stepped up to help in hospital roles; allied health clinicians have provided assistance to orderly teams and covered healthcare assistance; elective surgical staff have been redeployed into acute services; on-call staff have picked up shifts outside normal hours to fill roster gaps.

In Waitematā DHB, the entire legal team has been redeployed to support the security guards, and the chief financial officer has been seen delivering patient meals.

In Auckland hospital, anaesthetists have been taking blood, and the executive leadership team has been working in the ED, making beds, answering call bells and emptying skips. The Auckland legal team has also been helping direct patients and staff around hospitals.

The focus on vaccines

Dr Old said the situation in hospitals - from patients and staff having Covid - was unprecedented in his career, and New Zealand was very fortunate to be facing the outbreak with such high vaccination rates.

"But this is an area we need continued focus on."

Dr Jordan said the message was for people who have not yet got their booster that they should do so.

He said the current advice of three months between first and second dose for children made physiological sense.

He said it was best to get the longest duration of protection we can from our vaccinations. This week marks eight weeks since the 5-11 year old Tamariki vaccinations programme began.

Boosters and 5-11 year old vaccinations are still progressing well, with more than 835,000 booster doses and almost 100,000 paediatric doses delivered in Auckland to date.

There has been a slowdown in both these recently, partly because people have Covid and were having to isolate at home. Dr Jordan said over the weekend there will be events in Māngere, Manurewa, Ōtara, Henderson, Waimauku, and Pt England.

RATs readily available

Dr Old says rapid antigen tests (RATs) are now readily available right across Auckland, with more than two million distributed across the city since 1 March.

More than half a million RAT results have also been recorded in that time, with 214,000 of those in the past week. Positivity rates range from 28 percent for supervised tests, up to 46 percent of self-reported samples which reflects the number of negative results being self-reported.

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall today acknowledged rapid antigen tests (RATs) should have been in use in Auckland earlier than they were, saying a backlog of PCR tests could have been avoided.

However, she rejected the idea the tests should have been in use across the country months earlier, saying PCR was the most appropriate test throughout 2020 and 2021.

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