Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: What Phase 3 of response plan will look like

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Laboratories processing Covid-19 tests are said to have already reached capacity, leading to some tests simply not being processed at all.

Today, a record 3297 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in the community. 179 people were fighting the virus in hospital, with one person in ICU.

Auckland remained the centre of the outbreak with more than half of the day’s reported cases – 1729.

Association of Professional and Executive Employees (APEX) national secretary Dr Deborah Powell told the AM show they had already reached capacity at the labs and could not process as many tests as they were getting.

She said pooling tests was now a waste of time because so many tests were now positive and this had significantly reduced capacity.

“We’ve lost seven-eighths of our capacity.”

Tests were now being prioritised for essential workers and those turning up sick to hospital.

Powell said the figures released by the Government in January claiming PCR testing capacity had been increased to 58,000 a day with a surge capacity of 77,000 tests a day were “appalling” and were not being achieved.

Earlier in the week she saw thousands of tests in its Auckland hospitals waiting over 48 hours to be processed and they were not going to get to them.

“That’s the bottom line. We have reached capacity. The forecasting was optimistic and didn’t really explain to people what pooling did.”

Powell said some of the tests wouldn’t be processed and the figures from Monday showed there were 4000 tests that hadn’t been processed over 48 hours.

“It’s an escalating fact as more and more tests come in so hence prioritising, and look we are prioritising and we are getting the important tests out to people so if you’ve presented to hospital or are an essential worker these are being prioritised.”

She said the capacity would not just allow members of the public to get a test when they wanted one.

The situation comes as the Government signals a move to phase 3 of the Omicron response plan is nearby.

In late January, the Government unveiled a new chapter of the Covid-19 response – a three staged Omicron plan aimed at slowing down and limiting the spread of the virus.

Phase 3 means changes to the definition of close contacts, more frequent use of rapid antigen tests and the continuation of other measures, like the use of digital technologies, from phase 2.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters yesterday that New Zealand was expected to move to the next phase of the Omicron plan “fairly shortly” while Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told AM he didn’t think the move would be “far away at all”.

The trigger point would be around 5000 cases a day, and cases were currently doubling every three to four days, Robertson told AM.

“I don’t think [the move to phase 3] will be far away at all. We said around 5000 cases a day was where the trigger point for that would be. We know that cases are doubling every three or four days.”

A key difference under phase 3 is the change of the definition of a contact to household and household-like contacts only, meaning the highest risk contacts will need to isolate.

Speaking to AM, Robertson said the definition of close contact would be narrowed to basically being a house contact.

While phase 3 would represent a period of higher cases number, the narrowing of the close contact definition would help business during this disruptive time as fewer people would be captured by the term and would be able to carry on working, Robertson said

“We do recognise with more cases, the level of disruption businesses face is going to be much higher,” Robertson said, adding that the tough situation businesses faced was why the government had offered its latest support package.

The package was for eligible firms that could show a 40 per cent drop in seven consecutive days within the six weeks prior to the shift to phase 2 with a maximum of $24,000 available for businesses.

Each payment was $4000 per business plus $400 per full-time employee up to a maximum of 50 full-time employees and businesses could apply for the first payment from February 28.

Under phase 3, the role of rapid antigen tests will also evolve.

In announcing the three-phase plan, Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said self-service, rapid antigen testing for diagnosing Covid and a self-service tool to identify high risk contacts would play a significant role in responding to the high volumes of Omicron cases.

Digital technologies – which were used in phase 2, including the notification of cases via text message – would continue to be used in the next phase.

Most people would be able to self-manage and isolate at home as clinical care focused on anyone with high needs.

And the Government’s test-to-return to work regime for critical workforces also continues during the third phase, Verrall said.

“Our plan is simple – get boosted, wear a mask, follow basic hygiene rules we’ve become so familiar with and reduce contact as much as is practical.”

On Monday, Ardern said it looked likely New Zealand would hit an Omicron peak in roughly mid to late March before cases rapidly declined and then stabilised at a lower level – and at this point, some public health measures could be eased.

There were 143 people in hospital with Covid-19 on Monday across North Shore,Middlemore, Auckland,Tauranga, Lakes, Waikato, Tairāwhiti and Canterbury hospitals. One person was in intensive care.

Monday’s reported community cases of Covid-19 were in Northland (36), Auckland (1,802), Waikato (285), Bay of Plenty (86), Lakes (19), Hawke’s Bay (25), MidCentral (25), Whanganui (19), Taranaki (26), Tairāwhiti (17), Wairarapa (2), Capital and Coast (84), Hutt Valley (25), Nelson Marlborough (77), Canterbury (105), South Canterbury (4) and the Southern (206) region.

Fifteen Covid-19 cases had been identified at the border.

In a 24-hour period to Monday, 24,351 tests had been processed as sites in Auckland and Waikato continued to face high demand with test results for these areas taking longer to process at laboratories

The Ministry of Health said a significant number of concerned people who didn’t need a test – people who didn’t have any Covid-19 symptoms and were not a contact of a case – had been seeking one.

“People should only get tested if they have cold or flu symptoms, have been identified as a close contact of a case, or have been asked to get tested by a health official.”

As the high demand was anticipated to continue, the ministry asked people visiting the sites to be please be patient.

“Staff across the testing network are working tirelessly, to process tests and return results in a timely way. We would like to thank them for their recent mahi.”

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