7 Jan 2022

Covid-19 tracer app vital to minimising potential Omicron outbreak, expert says

12:16 pm on 7 January 2022

Consistent scanning of QR codes can provide significant boosts to contact tracers' efforts to contain Omicron outbreaks, Dr Andrew Chen says.

A person using the Covid Tracer app

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

With Omicron knocking on New Zealand's doorstep, there is concern about how the country's contact tracing system will cope when it begins spreading in the community.

The system came under severe strain when Delta leaked into the community back in August. Delta is less transmissible than Omicron.

University of Auckland research fellow and technologist Dr Andrew Chen told Morning Report that widespread use of the Covid-19 tracer app could prove vital as health authorities try to keep Omicron out of the community.

Chen said the rate at which New Zealanders are scanning QR codes is "well above" the rate shown at this time last year.

"The Delta outbreak really got a lot of people out of that complacency mode and a lot of people are doing it on a regular basis now.

"The catch with that is it's still not everyone so we've probably got about between one-and-a-half to two million people participating on a regular basis and that means there's probably another million or so that aren't really doing it as much as they should be," Chen said.

Although some people became complacent in their contact tracing habits during the Delta outbreak, Chen said the constant stream of news tracking the spread of the Omicron variant around the world may have led to a bounce back in vigilance.

"I think that there is a real sense that contact tracing behaviour or scanning QR codes is being driven by a perception of fear or a perception that there is something wrong happening in the community - an outbreak, for example.

"Once Omicron gets here it will be very difficult for us to stamp it out and then our response would have to move to managing it again."

With the threat of the Omicron variant, Chen said people keeping detailed Covid tracer logs may well be the difference between health authorities being able to contain a singular Omicron community case rather than it turning into a outbreak.

"If the person who gets Omicron and is in the community has been actively using the NZ Covid tracer and has a good diary and has been using the Bluetooth then that will significantly improve the speed at which contact tracers can get out there and find those close contacts.

"That will really significantly improve the speed with which contact tracers can find those close contacts and that will really significantly improve our likelihood of containing that outbreak to that one case or a small number of cases initially rather than it spreading out of control."

Chen said "speed is key" when dealing with any variant of Covid-19 and urged people to scan in regularly so contact tracers have the best chance of tracking any potential spread of the virus.

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