Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Tough few weeks predicted but rapid tests, mask use should help, Bloomfield says

There are fears rapid antigen tests (RATs) could become “the new toilet paper” as rising Covid-19 infections spark massive demand for the at-home testing kits.

Retail NZ is urging people not to panic-buy when the kits become widely available for sale next week from supermarkets and other retail stores.

But a pharmacy owner says she is already seeing “desperation” from shoppers, with the kits flying off the shelves at a number of Auckland pharmacies this week as Omicron infections spike.

Almost 3000 RATs were sold to the public from one Auckland pharmacy on Monday, and another 3000 across four other city outlets owned by the same pharmacist.

“Oh my God, it’s just crazy,” Clair Connor said of demand at her four Unichem pharmacies in Meadowlands, Hunter’s Plaza, Beachlands and Albany Megacentre, and one Life Pharmacy at Botany.

“On Sunday … Life Pharmacy Botany did $20,000 in [RATs] sales. But in the Albany store on Monday we did $28,000 [RATs sales] in one day.

“When I got there, two people were having an argument about their place in the queue. I had to tell them, ‘let’s just be orderly, there’s going to be stock for everyone in the queue’.”

“[There’s] desperation from the public.”

The run on RATs sparked a warning from Retail NZ, which represents two-thirds of Kiwi retailers.

“Don’t panic-buy. Buy them when you need them,” public affairs and policy advice manager Aimie Hines said.

“Let’s not make this the new toilet paper”.

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said the nation faced a tough few weeks ahead as Omicron surges, but rapid testing kits were helping ease some pressure.

Nearly 20,000 new Covid-19 cases were recorded yesterday, when 373 people were in hospital, nine in intensive care, and almost 100,000 active cases nationwide.

“Covid-19 is a very different foe to what it was in the beginning of the pandemic,” Bloomfield said, citing the current high vaccination rate.

“For most people, Covid-19 will be a mild to moderate illness that can be managed quite safely at home,” the director general of health added at a press conference.

Bloomfield conceded polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing capacity was not keeping up with demand last week.

The processing of 32,000 testing samples had been delayed and Bloomfield apologised for that.

“Our labs are committed to processing all those tests,” he said.

About 9000 tests were sent to Queensland over the weekend to help clear the backlog.

But using rapid antigen tests had eased pressure on testing capacity in recent days, Bloomfield said.

He said more than five million rapid test kits had been distributed, and 12 million were held centrally.

“The challenge is distribution, with some of the logistics networks’ staff being affected by the outbreak.”

Bloomfield said the average length of stay in Auckland hospitals is 2.2 days, half what it was during the Delta outbreak.

People mostly weren’t needing respiratory support, he added.

Hospitals around the country were at 80 per cent occupancy, while intensive care units were at 57 per cent.

Middlemore Hospital staffing levels were down 15 to 20 per cent, due to people either having Covid-19 or looking after others who’d tested positive.

“They’ve got plans in place to move staff around,” Bloomfield said of the big South Auckland hospital.

“The wind-back of planned care will be temporary while they need to focus on people who are acutely unwell.”

Bloomfield said most people with Omicron could be looked after at home and he asked people to keep wearing face masks, practice physical distancing, and stay home if unwell.

“The next few weeks are going to be tough.”

Asked about the breakdown of Delta and Omicron cases in hospital, he said there was a lag in whole-genome sequencing of those in hospital but data was on the way.

He said symptoms were similar for both variants. A cough, scratchy throat, runny nose and body aches were typical.

Those symptoms applied to people whether boosted or not, but those with booster shots would generally not experience such severe symptoms, Bloomfield said.

In children, “gastro-tummy” symptoms were common. But loss of smell or taste didn’t seem to be a symptom of Omicron.

Bloomfield said the usefulness of the two-dose vaccine pass after the Omicron outbreak would be reviewed, as would the traffic light system and vaccine mandates in general.

Protest activity at Parliament had “not much” influence on the ministry’s advice on those issues, he said.

Meanwhile, the 10-day isolation period for cases and household contacts was being reviewed too, and depending on health advice, could drop to seven days.

Bloomfield said it was irresponsible for some protest groups to tell people to shun public health advice.

“Masks are incredibly important. Please keep using them to protect yourself and others.”

He called those in the Wellington anti-mandate occupation an “incredibly small minority”, given that 97 per cent of eligible people had at least one dose.

A deadline passed at noon yesterday for anti-mandate protesters to leave Auckland Domain but their campsite remained.

The small group set up a makeshift campsite behind the Wintergardens and were given until midday by the council to pack up.

A protester who declined to be named told the Herald they were inspired by the occupation on Parliament grounds.

In Wellington, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was important for everybody to be able to access rapid tests.

“There has been a period when people waited too long for their PCR tests to be processed, that has been acknowledged.”

Ministers have now approved Novavax for use, with the first shipments expected later this month, Bloomfield said.

Fewer than 10,000 had taken up AstraZeneca so far, and he described Novavax as a good vaccine.

However, good evidence supported maintaining a largely Pfizer-based vaccine programme, he said.

The first payments from the new Covid Support Payment went out yesterday.

More than 29,851 applications were made, and from 1pm yesterday the first businesses received payments – a total of $117.5 million to 24,044 businesses.

The payment allowed eligible businesses to get $4000 per business plus $400 per full-time employee, capped at 50 FTEs or $24,000.

It will be available on a fortnightly basis for six weeks, meaning three payments in total, each of which must be applied for separately.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said this reflected international experiences suggesting the Omicron outbreak should greatly subside after about six weeks.

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