28 Jan 2022

Essential to protect vulnerable at Omicron peak - epidemiologist

12:38 pm on 28 January 2022

An Australian-based epidemiologist says in the face of Omicron, the focus should be on ensuring the health system is not overwhelmed as case numbers increase.

Prof Tony Blakely

Epidemiologist Tony Blakely says the trick is to minimise Omicron's hospitalisation and mortality burden as numbers increase. Photo: Billy Wong/University of Auckland

A music event in Hamilton last weekend - SoundSplash - is under the spotlight as a possible super-spreader, with one case of Omicron confirmed and other results awaited.

Melbourne-based epidemiologist Tony Blakely said Omicron would not be too bad if it was managed well.

He predicted that on the worst day of the outbreak there would be no more than 1000 to 1200 people in hospital diagnosed with Covid-19.

"I'd be fairly sort of comfortable about the fact that Omicron's starting to grow in numbers and worry more about what you're going to be doing in a couple of weeks time to make sure you take the top off the epidemic, you don't want the numbers getting too high in two to six weeks time."

Blakely believed about half the New Zealand population would get Omicron - or about 2.5 million people.

That meant estimates that there would be approximately 50,000 to 80,000 infections per day at its peak were about right, he said.

But he said because the majority of Omicron infections were asymptomatic, the number of cases being notified at the peak would likely be lower at around 10,000 to 15,000 per day.

Try to minimise hospitalisation and mortality at Omicron peak

Blakely said once Omicron took off it was important not to overwhelm the health system.

"The trick here is to minimise the hospitalisation and the mortality burden, to do that what you do is get the people who are elderly, those with comorbidities, those who are immunocompromised - you protect them like crazy.

"They hunker down, they withdraw from society, they make sure they're wearing high quality masks if they still do need to go out, we as the rest of society help those people by assuring they get their groceries to their house without need to go out and about."

Protecting the vulnerable from getting infected should prevent the mortality and hospitalisation burden from being too great, Blakely said.

"It's fairly clear that the hospitalisation rate and the death rate goes up exponentially with age and also goes up a lot if you've got comorbidities - as long as people have that information they can make their own decisions about how to look after themselves."

Everyone else should be cautious and undertake good Covid-19 practices such as physical distancing and mask wearing to ensure the numbers do not go too high and overwhelm the health system, he said, adding that everyone had to make their own decisions about how to deal with Omicron.

People who were over 65 who did not want to completely hunker down should at least make sure they were wearing a good mask such as an N95 when they went out and that they had a booster shot, he said.

Keep calm and focus on what you can control - psychologist

Meanwhile, a Wellington clinical psychologist is advising New Zealanders to keep calm and be prepared for an Omicron outbreak.

Victoria University clinical psychologist Dougal Sutherland said it was important "so that you can think clearly about a situation".

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Dougal Sutherland. Photo: Supplied / Victoria University

"Listen to your anxiety and what are you getting anxious about? Is it your home, is it your whānau, is it your work and then use that to guide you to prepare."

Sutherland said anxiety could play a role in getting you to act.

"We also know from previous experience in Covid lockdowns that when people engage in health-related behaviours it actually helps lower their anxiety and their distress."

People needed to focus on things they could control, which could include things like having masks available, preparing for possible isolation or discussing whether they could work from home.

Sutherland said those who found themselves stressed by endless media or social media Covid-19 reports should limit themselves to two or three news catch-ups a day.

Parents should be careful not to pass their anxieties about Omicron onto their children.

"Often the things that we as adults or parents worry about are not the same things that children are worried about."

Parents should rather take time just to listen to what concerns their children might have, Sutherland said.

"It could be nothing - I talked to my 15-year-old daughter yesterday, I said 'Are you guys talking about Omicron and worried about it?' And she said 'Nah we don't really think about it until it happens'."

If children did have concerns adults should avoid trying to solve the problem for them or to placate them by saying everything will be fine, he said.

Sutherland said parents and caregivers should try and enable children to act in order to cope with their anxieties.

"So that means helping them to figure out what they can do to alleviate their anxiety and control the situation."

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