Dr Ayesha Verrall and Dr Ashley Bloomfield shed light on how NZ will tackle Omicron

The Government has released its three-phased approach in how will tackle the Omicon variant spreading through the community.

Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall says "through the course of managing Omicron, we will be taking a phased approach. As case numbers grow both testing and isolation approaches will change in response."

"Omicron is here, and we have changed our strategy," she said.

Verrall said it was important New Zealand minimised the impact of Omicron, and the Government wanted to protect essential services.

Verrall said case numbers were likely to grow rapidly.

A 10-case coutbreak could reach 1000 cases in six to 12 days, she said.

"I know these sorts of case numbers will sound scary to some people."

But she said Omicron was markedly less severe than earlier strains.

"For most people, Omicron [will] be a mild to moderate illness that you can manage at home."

The associate minister said booster shots will be critical to reducing strain on hospitals. She said clinics and drive-through vaccination centres were among the places where boosters will be available.

About one in five children were already vaccinated or had bookings, Verrall said.

Steps will include:

· Reducing isolation period for cases and close contacts at Phase Two and Three to 10 and seven days;

· Definition of close contact required to isolate changes to household or household like contacts at Phase Three;

· Increased use of rapid antigen tests with test to return policy put in place for health and critical workforce;

· Greater use of technology, including text notifications for cases and close contacts and automated contact identification.

Verrall and director general of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield are addressing the media about the plan, as outlined below:

Phase One

"Phase one is where we are now and we are doing what we have successfully done with Delta – taking a 'stamp it out' approach, Verrall said.

"Broadly speaking, that includes the same contact tracing, isolation, and request that everyone who is symptomatic be tested at a community testing station or at a primary health provider.

"If you are required to isolate, you will receive advice and – if needed – support to do so; at this phase you will need to isolate for 14 days if you are a case, and 10 days if you are contact.

"Our objective is to keep cases as low as possible for as long as possible to allow people to be boosted and children to be vaccinated without Omicron being widespread," Verrall said.

Phase Two

Phase two is about trying to slow the spread and protect our vulnerable communities, she said.

"In Phase Two, we will reduce the isolation period for cases to 10 days and contacts to seven days in line with best practice overseas.

"Household contacts will actively be managed by contact tracing services, with close contacts requiring a PCR test on day five.

"A rapid escalation in case numbers and the resulting pressure on our resources will also require us to shift from identifying all infected individuals to being more targeted to those most at risk and those needed to keep the country going.

"Digital technology is used more in this phase. Cases will be notified via text message and be directed to an online self-investigation tool which will focus on high risk exposures. Information will be provided via email and phone based interviews will still take place where it's required. Other forms of support will be available to those who need it.

"We will also change our current testing requirements for critical workers who are close contacts of cases. The prime focus of testing and tracing will be protecting this workforce and those most vulnerable to becoming severely unwell.

Phase three

Phase three is for when cases are in their thousands, Verrall said.

Further changes will be made to the contract tracing system when New Zealand reaches this point.

"Supported self-service, rapid antigen testing for diagnosing COVID and a self-service tool to enable identification of high risk contacts will be significant to respond to the high volumes of Omicron cases.

Digital technologies will continue to be utilised at this Phase, and people will be supported to self-notify close contacts. There will be continued support for those members of our community who are not digitally enabled.

The majority of people will be supported and be able to self-manage and isolate at home; and clinical care will focus on anyone with high needs.

Clinical care and welfare support will be targeted based on need.

"Through the course of Phase Two and Three, we have a test to return regime that will apply to our critical workforces, to keep them going through the outbreak.

Today, 23 new community cases of Covid-19 were announced, 15 of which are Omicron cases.

Six people are in hospital with the virus.

The Ministry of Health today said 56 community cases have been confirmed as an Omicron case through whole genome sequencing, or are a suspected Omicron case because they have an identified link to a confirmed Omicron case.

That included 44 cases linked directly or indirectly, to a family event and other associated events in Auckland on the weekend of January 15 and 16.

This afternoon's conference follows an announcement yesterday on new face mask guidance.

Ardern yesterday said makeshift face coverings would be discouraged, and masks would be increasingly required at restaurants and on public school bus trips.

Some restaurant owners have derided the new rules. Others have voiced concern the changes will put staff under more pressure from cantankerous or confused customers.

"Trying to keep up with all the rules is tricky. Then I have to educate my customers every day about it," Devonport cafe owner Peter Reeves told the Herald.

But epidemiologist Prof Michael Baker said the new rules should go further, and the Government ought to clarify mask standards and improve access to quality masks.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has indicated today's conference will also discuss the distribution of rapid test kits to utility, supply chain, and essential transport sectors.

Some businesses have told the Herald the Government was seizing private supplies of rapid antigen tests to bolster its own stocks.

The broad issue underlying today's announcement is the three-step strategy the Government plans to deploy.

The current stage is similar to suppression efforts used against the Alpha and Delta variants.

But the latter stages are largely a recognition of Omicron's transmissibility, and reflect an admission the variant will be virtually impossible to eliminate.

Ultimately, the third step accommodates the chances New Zealand may start recording more than 1000 daily cases, which is vastly more than for previous Covid-19 strains.

But nuances of the second or transitional stage, and the final stage, have not yet been made public in great detail.

In a Yale University article published yesterday, public health professor Dr Albert Ko said Omicron appeared to be twice as transmissible as Delta.

Hospitalisation and death rates from Omicron appeared to be significantly lower than from Delta, but high case numbers could still place pressure on hospitals.

And as existing vaccines are thought to be less effective at thwarting Omicron than at stopping Delta, the Government has encouraged people to get booster shots.

For more information visit covid19.govt.nz.

This article was first published on the NZ Herald and is republished here with permission.