4 Feb 2022

NZ Covid-19 Omicron strategy 'too cautious' - epidemiologist

6:59 pm on 4 February 2022

An epidemiologist in Australia is warning New Zealand's Omicron approach is overcautious and may mean the variant is active in the community for longer than it has been elsewhere.

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File photo. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

University of Melbourne School of Population and Global Health professor Tony Blakely told Morning Report continued efforts to stamp out the virus could lengthen the overall timeline of the pandemic.

"If you keep stamping it out for too long and you've got your population restrictions for too long and you don't let Omicron wash through in a timely manner, you could end up spending a lot of time doing those."

However, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the "jury is still out" on whether slowing down the virus prolonged the outbreak.

"Not too many countries have managed to slow it down, but we will continue to make decisions that New Zealanders continue to get the health care they need when they need it," she said.

Ardern said the public needed to be boosted before the borders opened and the country headed into winter.

Prof Blakely agreed it was important to contain the virus during the booster rollout, and as more rapid antigen tests (RATs) were coming into the country.

Prof Tony Blakely

Epidemiologist Tony Blakely is optimistic New Zealand can keep hospitalisation rates low during the Omicron outbreak. Photo: Billy Wong/University of Auckland

But if the booster rollout lost steam over time, he said the rest of the population would have waning immunity when the virus was widely circulating.

"Strong borders have been great for New Zealand and for Australia when we're going for 'zero-Covid'. But now with higher vaccination rates and a milder variant around the world, it's time to re-engage."

He said come March, when New Zealanders understood what Omicron was, "you'll probably realise that you're being a bit too cautious".

On the other hand, Covid-19 modeller and Canterbury University professor Michael Plank said it was too early to worry about the waning of protection provided by boosters.

"Waning of immunity is important, but at the moment we are still on the positive side of a ledge where we are actually increasing out immunity with the boosting programme," he said.

In Victoria and New South Wales, Prof Blakely said international travellers who were vaccinated and awaiting a booster just needed a RAT result and if it was negative, within 24 hours they could be out and about.

"Once you've got high levels of Omicron in your population, it doesn't make too much difference if an occasional person brings it in."

He said the next four to six weeks would be a busy period for New Zealand tackling Omicron.

But after that, Blakely said the government may look at relaxing isolation requirements.

"The timeline all the way through to Omicron is probably a little bit too cautious, but that's okay."

He said the supply chain problems in Victoria had played out now and cases were on a downward slope.

"Still difficult, but not too bad. We peaked at only 1200 people in hospital on the worst day, whereas the New South Wales they peaked about 2800."

He said New Zealand was in a better position because of higher vaccination rates and it wasn't going into the holiday season with Omicron.

"New Zealand can realistically aim for peak number of people in hospital on the worst day being only about 500 to 600.

"You still need to prepare for it being as high as 1500 or something just to have those plans in place.

"But I would be reasonably optimistic in New Zealand ... you can achieve a lower hospitalisation rate."

He said the Aotearoa should stay in the red light setting till after peak of the Omicron outbreak.

Covid-19 modelling 'not particularly well tailored' to NZ

Current daily case numbers are a far cry from the 50,000 daily infections that had been predicted.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins did not hide his scepticism of models while speaking on NewstalkZB today.

"Well better to have some modelling than no modelling ... but it's a little like the weather forecast," he said.

Modeller Rodney Jones took that criticism a step further and said that comment was "extremely unfair to weather forecasters."

Jones compared Covid-19 modelling to a torch in a dark corridor, better to have one than not - although some lights shine brighter than others.

"What we have had is modellers throwing around these big numbers, getting the media attention, which may serve a purpose in terms of conveying the risk, but over the time you lose credibility," he said.

"I think that is the story globally in this outbreak."

In the overseas modellers' defence, Canterbury University professor Michael Plank said predicted infections were different than confirmed case numbers.

But he also took such predictions with a grain of salt.

"It's international modelling, it is not particularly well tailored to the New Zealand population and as a result of that, I think the timing is out, so I think we are probably a few weeks behind from the trajectory that model has predicted," he said.

He said now was not the time for the country to be complacent, especially with warnings from domestic modellers that Omicron could infect up to half of New Zealanders within the next few months.

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