7 Mar 2022

Chatham Islands ramps up Covid-19 response as first cases detected

8:06 pm on 7 March 2022

Chatham Islanders have been preparing for Covid-19, but for the last two years have been fortunate to live without the virus in their community.

The Chatham Islands

The Chatham Islands Photo: RNZ/ Matthew Theunissen

That changed on Sunday when the first two cases of coronavirus were recorded on Rēkohu, the Chatham Islands, just over 800 kilometres east of New Zealand's mainland.

Air Chathams chief executive Duane Emery said a lot of work had been done to prepare for an outbreak but there was a fair amount of anxiety in the community about the pandemic.

"It's a tough one for the Chathams because we are so isolated, we need a more bespoke solution than the rest of the country and combined with a lower level of medical infrastructure and a big body of water, that's fairly unique."

The airline is part of a regional leadership group set up to prepare for community transmission of Covid-19 on Rēkohu.

Emery said the community was ready for the inevitable arrival of Covid-19 and residents had been making their own plans to ensure they were well prepared.

"There's definitely a tide change there where people are understanding that Covid was most likely going to find its way out there sooner rather than later."

The Chatham Islands Health Centre is staffed by a general practitioner and four nurses. Its services are managed by Canterbury District Health Board.

Executive director of nursing Becky Hickmott said additional nursing staff, who had previously worked on Rēkohu and had experience in managed isolation and quarantine, would head to the islands this week.

"They are bringing some significant skills with them which is really good, they have been working with the Covid response for some time in MIQ so they understand disease transmission and the illness quite well and they've been managing a number of Covid cases up to this point."

Staff would assess those who got the virus, either over the phone or in person, and put plans in place for their care.

Anyone in need of hospital care would be flown to New Zealand.

"Certainly, if anything happens that's requiring extra support we will have our air retrieval team ready if that's required."

Hickmott said Omicron was generally a milder illness for those who had been vaccinated and encouraged island residents who had not yet had their booster shot to do so.

Of the 600 or so people who live on Rēkohu, only 56 percent are boosted, compared to the national average of 73 percent, and 95 percent have had two doses of the vaccine.

Chatham Islands mayor Monique Croon said she was "a little worried" about the low uptake of booster shots.

"The key message for us and concern is that those that choose to be unvaccinated - the risk that they may be facing if there is more of an outbreak here on the Chathams," Croon said.

"We also are making available rapid antigen testing for all members of the community so we can continue getting early detection."

More tests are arriving on the islands over the next few days - and will be distributed to all residents by the end of the week.

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