15 Mar 2022

Covid-19 cases in Auckland on the way down, 'pretty full on outbreak' in Wellington - Bloomfield

2:26 pm on 15 March 2022

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says it is clear that the number of cases in Auckland is on the way down but in Wellington, case rates are increasing rapidly.

Dr Bloomfield and Chief Science Advisor Dr Ian Town held a media briefing on the Omicron response.

Watch the update here:

Dr Bloomfield says there are 21,616 new cases of Covid-19 in the community and 960 people are in hospital, including 22 cases in ICU or High-dependency units.

In the Northern region there are 559 people in hospital, with 40 percent - some 233 - aged 70 or over, he says.

Bloomfield says we saw higher case numbers compared to modelling from before the outbreak, but it is clear that the number of cases in Auckland is on the way down.

There are 6,085 new cases in Auckland today up from 4,730 yesterday and 4509 on Sunday.

Bloomfield says while admissions are on the way down, the total number of people in hospital with Covid-19 is continuing to increase. Peak hospitalisations do typically lag behind peak case numbers by about a week.

He says we have seen an interesting shift to the Omicron BA.2 subvariant rather than the BA.1 variant. This could help explain why we had more transmission than was expected in the high-transmission scenario modelling.

However, this may be in our favour because other jurisdictions overseas - for example NSW and the UK, particularly Scotland - are seeing second outbreaks with the BA.2 variant, having already had BA.1 variant outbreaks.

He says Scotland is seeing its highest case rate in nearly two years and has about 1800 people in hospital with the variant, compared to the under 1000 in New Zealand.

Bloomfield says it's important to make sure people are "vaxxed to the max". He says this is a change in language - where we previously talked about "fully vaccinated" being two doses, it's a shift to talking about being up to date with vaccinations.

He says it's clear that protection against getting Omicron and/or being hospitalised does wane over time with just two doses.

A report from the Northern Region from 8 March showed just 16 percent of people admitted to hospital had their booster more than two weeks prior.

"So fully 84 percent of those people were not fully boosted ... so even though only a small proportion of our population now has not had two vaccinations it's really really clear that a booster protects people from being hospitalised and we know it also helps protect people from dying from Omicron."

He says in the same two weeks prior to 8 March, just one person admitted to ICU was fully boosted.

Wellington outbreak

Bloomfield notes there is now a "pretty full on outbreak" in Wellington, with case rates increasing rapidly.

But, he thinks, the outbreak in Wellington, including the Hutt Valley and Kāpiti Coast, is yet to peak.

There are 1,584 cases in the Capital and Coast DHB catchment and 33 hospitalisations.

"I think the rate of increase is similar to what we may have seen in Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and others beforehand.'

Bloomfield says the region with the highest case rate - per capita - right now is Tairāwhiti.

He says the DHBs have good plans in place, but when they have particularly high case numbers in hospital they do need to scale back some of their normal services.

He says some people are returning several negative RATs, but RATS are just "one tool" and not as accurate as PCR tests. He says people who have symptoms should assume they have Covid-19.

Bloomfield says it may be useful to swab the throat as well as nose with RAT tests, but it should be the throat first, and swabbing the nose is "back, not up" and it does need to go a fair way and will be a bit uncomfortable if you're doing it properly.

From tomorrow the Ministry of Health will be reporting positivity rates of RATs broken down by DHB.

Bloomfield says there are still several thousand tests being genome sequenced each day, usually from people in hospital who take PCR tests.

There is still PCR testing being done in the community, he says.

While BA.2 appears to be more transmissible than BA.1 there is no evidence whether it is more or less severe at this point, Bloomfield says. It's also encouraging that the Delta variant seems to have been almost completely subsumed by Omicron. It may still be circulating a bit but has not been detected in PCR tests since mid-February.

He says the advice for people who have had Covid and want to get the booster, is to wait three months.

Bloomfield says the largest group by age for people who have not yet got the booster is young people, and that may be partly because they were not eligible for vaccination until late last year, but now everyone who is eligible is being encouraged to get the booster.

On events, he says the ministry will be looking at the possibility of bigger crowds at outdoor events given the lower risk outside when there is distancing. The Women's Cricket World Cup has been using this to host larger numbers at matches, and the ministry will look at the possibility for rugby.

Long Covid

Dr Ian Town is talking about Long Covid. He says most people who develop Covid recover completely, but the term "Long Covid" is generally applied to people who continue to suffer effects for at least 12 weeks.

It can include low energy, fatigue, shortness of breath and cough, headaches, low mood, difficulty concentrating, cognitive impairment, ongoing chest pains, a racing pulse, joint pains, aches and pains, weakness in muscle, ongoing changes to sense of taste or smell, and poor quality of sleep.

Dr Town says there is no suggestion the symptoms of Long Covid are psychological symptoms, and the key thing is to pace yourself and accept you may need more rest.

There's no specific treatment, but it's thought to be part of a post-viral immune response and the approach to Long Covid is "very much a framework of rehabilitation and pacing yourself and not overdoing it".

He says that's good advice for during the acute phase of the virus too.

He says people who suspect they may have Long Covid should get in touch with a health professional.

"There isn't a magic bullet in terms of the recovery."

Bloomfield says there are some cases where the ministry may want to contact trace people, and "we may find as we come off the peak of the outbreak that we'll return to using our contact tracing system more widely again, so people should continue to scan in".

"I think about it as a bit like mask use, once you're in the habit just keep doing it. And remembering that it does provide that record back for 14 days and you never know quite when it is you might need to know so... I just encourage people to keep doing it."

He says as we come off the peak, we might still be seeing a baseline level of about 3000 to 5000 cases per day for several weeks or months.

A recent study on Long Covid showed impacts on the brain including shrinkage.

"The researchers were able to show that there were changes in the brain area that is responsible for the processing of smell ... and also in the area where the brain is involved with memory processing."

He says there is research looking into practical treatments for the condition, which is not dissimilar to what might otherwise be called chronic fatigue syndrome.

Chief Allied Health officer Martin Chadwick is set to chair an expert advisory group to help provide advice and support to healthcare practitioners.

It's uncertain whether Omicron is more or less likely to lead to Long Covid, Dr Town says.

A study is also being funded by the ministry, at the Victoria University of Wellington, looking into short- and long-term impacts of Covid-19 in Aotearoa. It will look at the experience within families, whānau and Pacific families, and people with disabilities.

About 8000 invitations have been sent out to people who have been diagnosed, for people to participate. People should call 0800 800 581 to talk to the researchers about the possibility of participating.

Estimates from the UK show about 20 percent of people who get Covid-19 still experience some effects five weeks after their initial diagnosis, and about 10 percent continue to experience these symptoms for three months after contracting Covid.

He says this is not a disease to be taken trivially.

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