The Director-General of Health predicts more than 1000 people will be in hospital over July and August with Covid as the winter flu and RSV season approaches.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield provided an update on the Omicron outbreak on Friday and while he says New Zealand has passed the peak of the current outbreak, Kiwis should be prepared for another as winter approaches.
He said the Influenza A strain has already been found in Queenstown and the student population in Dunedin, adding Australia has also found cases of the strain.
“The good news is in Australia, where they are a little ahead of us, the current flu vaccine and the strains in it afford a good level of protection, including against that influenza A."
He says there is also evidence that people can be co-infected with flu and Covid at the same time. UK data, he says shows about 3% of people becoming unwell in this event.
Based on modelling from last year, Bloomfield says a flu and RSV peak is expected to put pressure on hospitals over winter.
He says respiratory illnesses combined with Covid infections is likely to put at least 1000 people in hospital mid-winter with Covid alone.
Bloomfield says DHBs are doing significant planning ahead of the potential winter surge.
“Flu vaccination is imperative here – we’ve already had approaching 700,000 people who have had their flu vaccine since we kickstarted the campaign on April 1.”
He implored eligible people to get their free flu vaccination and for those not eligible to also get it, because “it’s relatively cheap”.
Pfizer fourth dose rollout
Bloomfield says a rollout of a fourth dose of the Pfizer vaccine is being finalised, the criteria for those eligible will be for vulnerable groups, including the elderly.
He says technical advice is for eligible people to wait six months before a fourth dose, with the goal of the elderly having peak immunity in July and August.
“June will be the time we are aiming to roll out that programme,” Bloomfield says.
He encouraged Kiwis to go into winter as prepared as possible.
“Our health system will have a heavy load of respiratory illnesses through winter. And everybody can do their bit to help reduce the impact of that potential load by being up to date with all vaccinations."
He also encouraged people to wear a mask in indoor environments outside the home and for those who test positive for Covid to isolate for seven days and report their test.
Covid here to stay
The onset of winter also brings with it extra costs which can also impact health, one expert explains.
University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker told 1News infectious diseases have a social gradient which is marked by deprivation and ethnicity.
“People in relative poverty sometimes have disabilities and chronic health problems - you can see that when money is short, more families will share households or people will share houses temporarily,” he says.
“There are ways poverty increases the chances of infection or re-infection," adding that people may be less likely to re-test for a potential case of Covid.
“I think people may at a certain point think it will make no difference to them if they get a positive test result."
Baker says Covid is here to stay, winter or not.
“The flu will only be here for winter and then it will go away again. Covid isn’t going away, that’s the problem.
“People should remember this virus doesn’t just come and go, numbers will track up again as the virus starts to change and new variants emerge.
“Relaxing our controls, new variants and waning immunity will affect rising case numbers,” he says.