23 May 2023

Preparing for the winter illness wave

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 23 May 2023

Winter 2022 was marked by the so-called "twin-demic" of flu and Covid-19. This year, the government's come up with a plan to help ease the burden on the health system, but is it enough? 

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Photo: 123RF

The temperatures are dropping, we're spending more time indoors: winter illness season is upon us.

Last year's flu season, along with a winter wave of Covid-19, put immense pressure on the health system.

So are we better prepared in 2023?

Newsroom political reporter Marc Daalder is closely watching the data, and flu hospitalisations are already up, when compared to the same time last year.

"Looking at the first week of April [2022], last year there were zero influenza related hospitalisations, but this year there were 120. That tells you the flu is back this year. Whether it is more or less than last year, we'll only find out in the thick of it, but it'll be a similar magnitude for sure.

"On top of that, Covid is still here, our last wave was in December of last year, so we are due for another one.

"We know that Covid is more likely to spread during winter, in part because people are indoors and it spreads more easily that way. We expect there will be at least an uptick in Covid cases over winter, which will put additional pressure on the hospital system."

But Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank says daily case numbers during a winter wave this year are likely to be much lower than what was recorded last year.

That's because more people are boosted and there's some level of immunity from previous infections.

Plank calls this year of the "recombinant" variant - a result of two different strains combining with each other. 

For example, there's the XBB.1.5 variant, also known as "Kraken". Experts thought it could have caused a surge in infections earlier this year, but this didn't eventuate.

There's also FK.1.1, which it's suspected may have originated in New Zealand.  

"It's part of this variant soup... it doesn't appear it has a big growth advantage to start a new wave," Plank says.

Modeller Emily Harvey has spent much of the last three years focused on Covid-19, but now she's turned her attention to other respiratory illnesses.

She's monitoring trends via the online Flutracking survey, which members of the public can take part in.

As for how bad this winter is going to be, she says it's a "really big unknown".

"We can get a bit of an idea from what's happening in the Northern Hemisphere winter for the last couple of years... they've had some bad flu and other respiratory illnesses. If we were going to predict, there's no reason why we wouldn't expect a bad season here as well.''

Earlier this month, the government released its winter illness plan, which it's hoped will reduce some of the strain on the health system.

But there are some simple things Harvey says we can all do to keep healthy over winter:

  • Improve ventilation indoors, so when people go to school and work, or are out socialising, they're less likely to catch viruses from other people
  • Get up-to-date with vaccinations for Covid-19 and flu
  • Support people to stay home when they're sick. Modelling shows that when sick workers stay home, there'll be fewer disruptions in your workplace.

Hear more about what's in the government's winter illness plan in the full podcast episode.

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