Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Omicron in Queenstown, Government reveals three-phase plan to combat variant

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Two locations of interest in Queenstown have been linked to suspected Omicron cases.

The locations are Queenstown Airport on Saturday (January 22) from 2.15pm-3pm.

The second is the Hotel St Moritz, also on Saturday January 22, from 12am (midnight)-12pm.

People who were at either place during the affected times are told to self-monitor for Covid symptoms for 10 days after being exposed and if symptoms start to show, get tested and stay home until a negative test result returns.

Hotel St Moritz Queenstown general manager Jo Finnigan said they have been told the Omicron case was only in the hotel for a 15-minute period while infectious.

It was during their last day at the hotel and they were only in the lobby for a short time and then left.

She said although there is of course some risk, they are confident that they have done everything they can to mitigate the risk.

The hotel is fully vaccinated for both staff and guests.

Finnigan said people at the hotel have been deemed casual contacts only and they are following guidelines by the Ministry of Health to monitor for symptoms for the next 10 days.

Rapid antigen tests row

The Government is under increasing pressure from businesses and Opposition parties who claim it has “seconded” rapid antigen tests (RATs) to make up for its own late orders, and criticism over a perceived lack of detail in the plan.

Yesterday, Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall unveiled the three-phase plan to combat Omicron.

Despite still relatively low Omicron case numbers – the outbreak rose by 15 cases to 56 yesterday – based on overseas evidence, 10 cases could reach 1000 cases in six to 12 days, she said.

Meanwhile Otago University epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker says the latest overseas modelling that New Zealand could reach 50,000 Omicron infections a day by Waitangi weekend – and peak at about 80,000 a few weeks later – was a good estimate in his view.

But Baker thought New Zealand could improve on its results due to local restrictions and believed that the modelling should be pushed out by a week.
“The thing that is so striking about how Omicron behaves in a population is how rapid the outbreak is,”he told RNZ.

“Once it starts – once it gets through what I think the Government is calling phase one which we are in at the moment – once it gets past that phase it is really quite explosive that exponential curve.”

The modelling also assumed that only one in eight cases was detected. Most cases would only have no or only a few symptoms, he said.

Baker’s advice especially to elderly or those with underlying health conditions was to get a booster shot, reduce your contact with people outside your family unit and wear a good, high-quality mask.

Baker said now was the time to scale back interactions with other people.

“The bad news is this is a very intense outbreak and in some ways it is also the good news in a sense as it means it will be over in a few months.”

He thought large case numbers of around 50,000 a day could begin in late February and peak in March.

The three-phase plan

The Government’s three-phase Omicron plan begins with the familiar “stamp it out” process, which includes similar contact tracing, isolation and public health requirements as previously designed to slow the spread of the virus.

At phase two, once daily case numbers reach around 1000, the focus will shift to identifying people most at risk of getting severely ill and to essential or critical workers.

Isolation terms would be reduced to 10 days for cases and seven days for contacts. RATs would also be used instead of isolation for critical workers – exactly who that includes is still to be determined – and technology used to notify cases.

In phase three, when daily cases are in “the thousands”, the focus would shift to those with the highest needs, and the majority of people would be managing themselves and isolating at home.

RATs would also be more widespread, but again the focus would be on critical workers and symptomatic people.

Verrall said the plan was designed to avoid the health system being overwhelmed.

“The numbers are part of it, and the numbers are likely to be less than 1000 a day before moving between phase one and phase two.

“Between phase two and phase three it could be in the thousands but not the tens of thousands.”

She said Omicron was “uniquely transmissible” but was less severe. A smaller proportion of people would likely need to go to hospital, but with many more people getting the virus, there could still be pressure on the system.

Māori not consulted

Meanwhile a Māori health expert warns the Government could again find itself before the Waitangi Tribunal after it revealed there had been no consultation before publishing its plan to fight Omicron.

When asked what consultation there had been with Māori, particularly following a damning Waitangi Tribunal finding last year over its pandemic response, Verrall said there had not been any on this plan specifically.

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said consultation during Delta had helped inform this plan, and he would meet multiple Māori health organisation representatives by Zoom today to discuss the plan.

The tribunal last year said the Crown was “actively breaching” the Treaty of Waitangi on multiple levels in its vaccination strategy and shift to the traffic light system, and said it had consistently “failed to engage” Māori on key decisions.

Health research analyst Dr Rawiri Taonui said a lack of consultation by the Government regarding its three-phase Omicron plan could form part of another Waitangi Tribunal hearing.

Taonui said meetings earlier this week between Māori leaders and health officials to discuss the plan had been cancelled.

He said while engagement with Māori leaders was set to happen tomorrow and Friday, it meant little considering the plan had already been released to the public.

“What they’re doing is advising a fait accompli after the fact and that’s completely different [to consultation],” he said.

“Under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, consultation has to be active and in advance. The duty to consult is an active duty in advance of an event or decision, not after the fact.”

With Māori booster levels 10 per cent below the national average, Taonui said Māori were facing bad outcomes from Omicron if Government strategy wasn’t informed by Māori leaders.

Peter Fraser, national secretary of the Māori Council which took the claim to the tribunal, said while there had not been consultation, they had been informed in advance of the plan and provided feedback.

He said the three-step approach appeared sensible, and he commended other approaches and engagement from the Government since that tribunal ruling, including prioritising paediatric vaccinations in low-decile schools.

Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency CEO John Tamihere, however, said his organisation had been ignored by the Government, despite approaching it over how it could assist in the home isolation process and vaccinating 5 to 11-year-olds.

The Government also faces mounting pressure over its approach to RATs after several companies accused it of seizing their orders.

The Government has tens of millions of rapid antigen tests on order, and expects about 20 million will arrive by the end of February.

The Government said it had channelled business’ orders of RATS into its own stocks, responding to claims from business that testing stocks had been requisitioned.

Bloomfield said he was “not commandeering all the stocks that private businesses have”, and added that only tests that were not already in the country had been “consolidated” into the Government’s stock, which would then be distributed.

National Party Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said the Omicron plan lacked detail, including definitions of critical workers and when the phase changes would occur, and the Government was late to order enough RATs.

“The Government wasted the summer by delaying vaccinations for 5 to 11-year-olds, boosters for everyone, but particularly the most vulnerable, and not ordering enough rapid tests.

“It is a stunning indictment on the Government’s incompetence that having banned rapid antigen tests for most of 2021 and then failed to order enough themselves, they are now seizing rapid antigen tests ordered by the private sector.”

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