22 Mar 2022

Covid-19 case numbers have passed their peak in Auckland - Bloomfield

2:05 pm on 22 March 2022

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says Covid-19 case numbers have passed their peak in Auckland but that people should remain vigilant.

Watch the update here:

Dr Bloomfield say there are 20,907 new community cases of Covid-19, a further 15 deaths and 1016 people in hospital in Aotearoa today.

Dr Bloomfield says the latest analysis shows Covid-19 case numbers have passed their peak in Auckland, and are tracking down in all three district health boards.

He says analysis also shows case numbers nationally - not including Auckland - are also slowing. They increased just 1 percent in the seven days to 20 March, compared to a 44 percent increase in the week ending 13 March.

He says the pattern does differ by DHB, with cases still increasing in the South Island, although there are encouraging signs they are peaking in the Midland region and in the Wellington region.

He says case numbers appear to be largely now following the modelling for a high-transmission scenario. Case numbers were higher than the modelling suggested, and Bloomfield says this may be because most cases in New Zealand are the BA.2 subvariant.

He says hospitalisations in the northern region is also levelling off.

"We're watching carefully and the expectation is that they will start to drop as the week progresses.

"The average length of stay for people on wards in the Auckland hospitals who have been discharged is now 3.2 days compared to just over two days last month, and the average stay in intensive care is five days. This increase in average length of stay reflects that we're now seeing that people who are needing longer care, they may even be over their Covid infection but they have symptoms that need to be managed, often from underlying conditions."

He says even though cases in hospital in Auckland is staying high however, the number of new admissions each day is dropping quickly, but because those being admitted now are sicker and require longer care in hospital, the total number of people in hospital remains fairly steady.

Emergency department admissions testing positive remain highest at Middlemore, but they have fallen from 40 percent last month to 28 percent now. Auckland Hospital is down from 30 percent to 22 percent, while Waitematā is steady about 18 percent.

Whangārei's ED positivity rate is still increasing, he says.

"Admissions in the rest of the country are growing and we will continue to see them grow."

He says hospitalisation rates during the Delta outbreak was about 8 percent, whereas the Omicron outbreak has been about 0.9 percent.

"That hospitalisation rate will appear to increase over coming weeks, because as the cases drop yet people remain in hospital we'll see the denominator decline much quicker ... hospitalisations will decline but more slowly.

"The number of deaths each day is also likely to increase and will take longer to decline."

He says staffing shortages are a major pressure on the health system, and there is real pressure in hospitals as well as care in the community including rest homes.

'Covid isn't done with the world just yet'

Bloomfield says we can expect ongoing waves of Covid, and looking across the Tasman is instructive.

"The number of people hospitalised with Covid in New South Wales never dropped below 950 after their first Omicron wave ... it's now back over 1000 as cases started to increase again.

"In contrast, in Victoria the number of hospitalisations declined down to around 200 and remained steady there ... so two quite different pictures."

He says this shows we should expect to see a residual number of cases and people in hospital.

The UK has seen increased case numbers with the BA.2 subvariant, with Scotland hit hardest.

"Case numbers there are just below their previous peak, and hospitalisation figures the highest they have been since 2020. Globally it's likely there will continue to be further waves of Omicron and likewise there will be new variants of concern."

He says New Zealand will face these just as other countries will.

"Covid isn't done with the world just yet."

However, we may not see quite the same surge because New Zealand has already experienced a high number of cases of the BA.2 subvariant. That said, other infectious diseases could generate additional demand on the health system over winter, Bloomfield said.

Fourth vaccine dose a possibility

He says the government is also looking at the possible role of a fourth vaccine dose, another booster.

Bloomfield says he has asked for advice on prioritising vulnerable populations such as older people and those with pre-existing conditions for a fourth, booster, dose.

He says probably the biggest pressure on the health system is staffing, but says there are actions in place to handle that.

GP Joe Bourne, clinical leader of the Ministry of Health's Covid-19 immunisation programme, says GPs are now seeing 15 percent more encounters with people each day compared with 2021.

He says they are constantly adapting how they're working to deal with the number of people they're seeing.

This number varies depending on region and how close to the peak each region is, he says. Auckland is returning to the levels seen last year, while Hawke's Bay is seeing 33 percent more and Canterbury is now seeing 30 percent more.

GPs are managing to handle this increase in demand despite staffing levels being affected by sickness.

He says clinical services and GP services remain available.

The self-assessment form sent to people who test positive is vital to assessing the needs of people in the community who are isolating. He says another part of the form gives people the ability to highlight where they plan to be isolating. One woman indicated she would be isolating in a car and was provided with a campervan instead, for example.

He says it is still very important for people to be isolating.

Looking ahead

Tomorrow the government is due to announce if it will relax mandates, vaccine passes and the traffic light system as the Omicron outbreak passes its peak in Auckland. Cabinet discussed reducing the restrictions yesterday.

Ahead of the announcement, Bloomfield says we are still in the middle of a global pandemic which has thrown curveballs before and will continue to.

"We need to be prepared to redeploy the measures that we already have in place or have used in the past."

He says there is a balance between protecting the population - particularly vulnerable groups - and only using restricting for the extent they are needed.

"We're expecting between 3000 and 5000 cases for the next several weeks even as we come down off the peak of Omicron."

He says as we get into winter people will be less likely to be presenting for Covid and more likely to have other illnesses like flu or RSV.

At the moment, total ICU and HDU beds are about 60 percent occupied, he says. Each day hospitals are looking at the number of beds available and staffing those accordingly.

He says the government is now reporting deaths that have happened in the past 24 to 48 hours, whereas a couple of times in the last two or three weeks there have been cases from the preceding two or three weeks. Last Monday there were 24 cases but 16 of those were from a backlog like that.

"We feel we're up to date now with the reporting."

Bloomfield says there's no guarantee new variants will follow the Omicron pattern of being more infectious but less severe, it's entirely possible they will be more severe instead as well as more infectious.

Bloomfield says he thinks Covid "will be around for good".

"Just as the first reported ... known reference to influenza was in about the 11th century, it's been something that's been with us. Covid, just like other coronaviruses will be here to stay. The question is just what sort of impact it will have on individual countries communities and globally.

"We're only two years into this virus having appeared, and so quite what the future holds none of us know but we need to be prepared."

Asked if it's possible to roll out Covid and other vaccinations at the same time, Bloomfield says it's something the ministry has looked at and there is some very advanced work on that.

He says within the next couple of weeks they are planning to really ramp up MMR vaccinations for tamariki - at 12 and 15 months - and catch up for those who missed the MMR vaccine aged 15-30. This would be alongside the Covid-19 booster shots.

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