29 May 2024

Covid cases, rules, and free stuff: What you need to know

4:30 pm on 29 May 2024
Recruiters are divided on the Nursing Council’s recent revisions to the registration process for healthcare workers educated outside New Zealand.

Recruiters are divided on the Nursing Council’s recent revisions to the registration process for healthcare workers educated outside New Zealand. Photo: Adobe Stock

Heading into winter, Covid-19 is making headlines thanks to new variants and an increase in case numbers.

Virus levels in wastewater were the highest they've been since December, 2022, according to national surveillance data for the week ending 19 May. And close to 40 people a day were being admitted to hospital with the disease.

Earlier this month, we looked at the rise of a subset of variants referred to as "FLiRT". Descended from JN.1, these new lineages accounted for just over 40 percent of all Covid viruses sequenced from waterwater, according to the latest Environmental Science and Research (ESR) data.

Ahead of Budget 2024, let's recap what we know about Covid restrictions, vaccines, tests, and more.

Mandates, restrictions, and free stuff

Government vaccine mandates are long gone. They were scrapped in September, 2022.

The remaining Covid mandates were dropped last year, meaning it is no longer a legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive test.

Free rapid antigen tests (RATs) for at-home testing will be available from participating pharmacies and RAT collection sites until 30 June, Health New Zealand Te Whatu Ora announced in January. RNZ has heard from people around the country who said they were already struggling to find tests. RNZ called several pharmacies: Some had stock while others had run out.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are used in some situations by health professionals. Results are generally more accurate than for RATs but take two to five days. There has been no indication those will not continue, because they are an important part of infection control in healthcare settings.

At this point, some are asking: Do the tests still work? Yes, experts have told RNZ. PCR tests and RATs work in different ways and the former are more sensitive. But overall, the new subvariants seem to be detected as well as their predecessors with current diagnostics.

Medical masks were free for everyone until the end of February this year. Special P2/N95 masks remain free for people at higher risk of getting very sick until 30 June, 2024. (You can get them when you pick up RATs).

Covid antiviral medicines, that can help reduce the amount of virus in your body so you don't get as sick, are also freely available to people with a range of risk factors relating to age, ethnicity, vaccination status, and underlying health conditions.

Covid vaccination is available and free for everyone aged 5 and over, while additional doses or boosters are available and free for people over the age of 30. (Some younger people can have additional doses, but eligibility criteria apply).

What can we expect from Budget 2024?

Hopefully, some answers. Right now, the country's long-term Covid strategy is unclear.

It is unclear whether the supply of free RATs and masks will be extended beyond the mid-year deadline. And whether vaccines will remain free for everyone.

Initially, Covid vaccines and treatments were paid for from a separate fund provided by the government. But from 1 July, 2023, the budget for them was added to the combined pharmaceutical budget; a pot of about $1.5 billion.

Now, Covid vaccines and treatments need to be prioritised against all the other medicines, medical devices, vaccines, and related products funded for New Zealanders.

While the Covid vaccines do not necessarily stop someone becoming infected, they remain good protection against severe illness and death from the disease.

The Public Health Communication Centre Aotearoa has also called for government action in response to the threat of long Covid, when the effects of the virus last longer than 12 weeks.

When asked for insight, a spokesperson from Health Minister Shane Reti's office only said: "The government's investment in health will be part of Budget 2024, announced on Thursday."

Self-isolation rules

Te Whatu Ora still recommends taking a test if you have Covid symptoms. And if you test positive, it is recommended you isolate for five days and update My Health Record so you can easily access help and support if needed.

What if someone in your household tests positive? If you have spent at least eight hours with them in the same home, while the person was infectious, you are recommended to stay at home and do a RAT. Even if you test negative, if symptoms persist, stay at home and test again after 24 and 48 hours. Isolate if necessary.

Again, while these things are recommended, there i s no longer a legal requirement to isolate after a positive test.

However, employers should support employees to stay home in line with health guidance, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said.

A notifiable disease

Covid remains a notifiable disease. There are no immediate plans to remove it from the schedule - which is updated as needed, the Ministry of Health told RNZ.

The schedule helps with the monitoring of and response to diseases that pose public health risks. Mostly this involves infectious diseases or diseases that, if present in an area, could create a health risk for the wider population.

Note, this does not mean you have to upload your test result. Rather, health practitioners and the people in charge of medical laboratories officially report, or notify, actual and suspected cases of disease.

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