Covid-19: Stay-home orders, school closures possible if Omicron spreads

RNZ
Emergency Departments are preparing to see an onslaught of Omicron cases, once the Covid-19 variant starts spreading in the community.

Stay-at-home orders and closing schools and shops could be enforced under the traffic light system if Omicron or another variant of Covid-19 was to widely spread.

While Delta remains the dominant variant worldwide, Omicron is spreading rapidly, and has become the dominant variant in England, the United States, and South Africa.

When Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced the first case of Omicron in managed isolation on December 16, he did not rule out the possibility of localised lockdowns in the event of community transmission, saying “we’d just have to see what the situation was”.

While high vaccination rates and other public health measures mean New Zealand will be less reliant on widespread lockdowns in the future, localised lockdowns could still see stay-at-home orders introduced. (File photo)
LAWRENCE SMITH/Stuff
While high vaccination rates and other public health measures mean New Zealand will be less reliant on widespread lockdowns in the future, localised lockdowns could still see stay-at-home orders introduced. (File photo)

A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s (DPMC) Covid-19 group said this could mean including restrictions on gatherings and movement, and closing some businesses.

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The traffic light system was intended to give as much certainty and stability as possible for people and businesses, reducing the need for “widespread” lockdowns, the DPMC said.

While high vaccination rates and other health measures meant New Zealand would be less reliant on widespread lockdowns, the traffic light framework still allowed the Government to take “necessary urgent action” to protect the health system and communities, the spokesperson said.

Localised lockdowns could be used to control high rates of transmission and prevent severe illness or death, the spokesperson said.

The “trigger” for, and scale of, any lockdown or restrictions would depend on the circumstances and the nature of the health response required.

An “unprecedented” number of infected people are being detected at the border, increasing the risk of a border failure which would introduce Omicron to the community. ​​​ (File photo)
valentina Bellomo/Stuff
An “unprecedented” number of infected people are being detected at the border, increasing the risk of a border failure which would introduce Omicron to the community. ​​​ (File photo)

These could include stay-at-home orders, closing premises such as schools and shops, restrictions on gatherings, and restrictions on movement in or out of a lockdown area.

The DPMC said this could involve requirements for people travelling into or out of a specific area, such as the measures in place for travel out of Auckland over summer.

It did not provide any further details on the likely measures.

However, leading epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker issued a plea to the Government to do away with the traffic lights altogether in favour of a tweaked alert level system, saying the framework was not designed to dampen down or manage an outbreak.

Professor Michael Baker said New Zealand needs to urgently turn the tap down on the number of infected people in MIQ to buy the country for time to prepare for Omicron.
SUPPLIED
Professor Michael Baker said New Zealand needs to urgently turn the tap down on the number of infected people in MIQ to buy the country for time to prepare for Omicron.

An Omicron outbreak would be “incredibly intense”, and the traffic light system wasn’t fit to handle that, Baker said.

The strain was very infectious and evaded some immunity from prior infection or vaccination, he said.

With Delta, there were three tools working to control the outbreak, Baker said: high vaccination coverage with a vaccine that limited transmission, contact tracing, and basic rules. With Omicron, “we’ve lost two of the three”.

The variant had a shorter incubation period, roughly two to three days, which “greatly limits” the ability for contact tracing, Baker said.

Professor Michael Baker said New Zealand needs to urgently turn the tap down on the number of infected people in MIQ to buy the country for time to prepare for Omicron.
David White/Stuff
Professor Michael Baker said New Zealand needs to urgently turn the tap down on the number of infected people in MIQ to buy the country for time to prepare for Omicron.

Vaccination still greatly improved outcomes, but was less helpful in stopping transmission.

Baker said the Government should look to reintroduce the alert level system “now, before we need it”.

He said New Zealand had time to prepare for Omicron, but that was largely “borrowed time”, given the “unprecedented” numbers of infected people coming into MIQ. There were 65 new border cases reported on Wednesday alone.

There were hundreds of active border cases, and New Zealand could have a border failure “at any moment”, he said.

Baker and University of Otago colleagues estimated in 2021 the country had a border incursion for every 100-200 people in MIQ.

“At the current MIQ rate, [Omicron] could get in very, very soon.”

Turning the tap down on arrivals was "urgent" and the first priority, he said.

Baker said Kiwis should be using the time before Omicron arrived in the community to vaccinate. That included both ensuring high uptake of boosters, and vaccinating children as fast as possible.

It was also critical all the country’s border deferences were reviewed to ensure they were fit for purpose, and a national mask-wearing strategy (with clear guidelines on what masks to use, for whom, and where) was needed “immediately”, Baker said.