New Zealand changes approach in dealing with COVID-19
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Back in August, New Zealand’s government put the entire nation on lockdown after a single community case of the coronavirus was detected.
On Tuesday, when new daily cases hit a record of nearly 24,000, officials told hospital workers they could help out on understaffed COVID-19 wards even if they were mildly sick themselves.
It was the latest sign of just how radically New Zealand’s approach to the virus has shifted, moving from elimination to suppression and now to something approaching acceptance as the omicron variant has taken hold.
Experts say New Zealand’s sometimes counterintuitive actions have likely saved thousands of lives by allowing the nation to mostly avoid earlier, more deadly variants and buying time to get people vaccinated. The nation of 5 million has reported just 65 virus deaths since the pandemic began.
But virus hospitalizations have been rapidly rising, hitting a record of more than 750 on Tuesday and putting strain on the system.
Across the country, the explosion in cases has left people stunned. Just a month ago, case numbers were around 200 per day. Now, the outbreak is affecting everyone from frontline workers to lawmakers.
Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago, said the variant had proved as ferociously infectious in New Zealand as it had in other countries.
He said cases appeared to be plateauing or even starting to dip in the largest city of Auckland, while still rising elsewhere.
While much of the world was breathing a sigh of relief after two years of terrible problems, Baker said, New Zealand was at its worst point yet in the pandemic and was coming to terms with the fact the virus would remain in the country permanently.
He said he was concerned health authorities had lost the ability to properly track the outbreak, as they struggled to shift from a system where they carefully monitored a few cases to dealing with thousands of self-reported results from rapid antigen tests.
Dr. Caroline McElnay, the director of public health at the Ministry of Health, told reporters the number of hospitalizations would grow, but that patients with omicron generally had less severe illnesses than previous patients had experienced with the delta variant.
She said the rising number of both patients and infected health workers had prompted the relaxation in the rules around when health workers could return to hospitals.
She said infected workers would only be allowed to work with patients who already had the virus, and if there were no other options.
“It’s an extra tool that enables our health system to keep running,” she said.
As virus cases go from 1 to 24000, New Zealand changes tack The Associated Press – en Español