Monday, 17 January 2022

Free Press 2022: OmiGod!


The Haps

OmiGod! Will the Government be ready for Omicron, or ready like it was for Delta? Welcome back. The Navy wants to help in Tonga but doesn’t know what to take a Pacific Island beset by a natural disaster. Soft power is supposed to be our calling card in the Pacific, would the Chinese navy be this unprepared?

What do we need to face Omicron sanely?

The Herald kindly carried this column from David Seymour this morning. It’s reproduced below for Free Press Readers.

Even the Government agrees Omicron will be on our shores soon. As we’re seeing overseas, it will spread faster than previous variants. In other words, the arithmetic of Omicron will torpedo the Government’s lock down and lock out strategy.

When Cabinet meets on Monday, it must accept reality and present a new strategy. Then it needs to give families, schools, businesses, and Kiwis stranded offshore clarity about how it will respond.

Watching Australia, Omicron could easily deliver 20,000 cases per day, and there might really be five times that number. The good news is that it appears far less virulent, infecting the throat instead of the lungs and hospitalising far fewer of those infected.

Unfortunately, the Pfizer vaccine appears to have little effect on spread, and reduces severe infections and hospitalisation by 70 per cent, instead of 95 per cent against Delta. Back to good news. Boosters greatly enhance protection against Omicron, but not to the level of two doses against Delta.

Altogether, though, more cases with less vaccine effectiveness means more hospitalisation, as we’re seeing overseas.

MIQ was eventually defeated by Delta. There are more Omicron cases in MIQ, perhaps because its shorter incubation period evades pre departure tests, and they’re more likely to escape once there. Omicron will be out sooner than Delta was.

Lockdowns did not eliminate Delta, so they certainly won’t eliminate the more infectious Omicron. Locking down might buy time, at great cost to people run down by the last ones.

Testing won’t keep pace with infections, whether it’s nasopharyngeal, saliva, or rapid antigen. The Government’s record for testing is about 40,000 a day, reached only a couple of times. If there are 100,000 true cases per day, testing as we know it won’t work.

Contact tracing lost the scent of Delta in ‘hard to reach’ communities, so we can write off tracing Omicron right away.

Isolation, under current rules, would lead to its own problem. Isolating sick workers will leave holes in supply chains and medical care facilities, amplifying the biggest problem, hospital capacity.

Countries with far more beds per head of population are struggling. If we get this wrong New Zealanders will see the kind of scenes that sent shockwaves of panic through the world in March 2020.

Avoiding that nightmare will require a whole new approach with clear goals and strategies behind them.

The goal must be reducing hospitalisation and deaths from COVID. It must be done while accepting that there is little the Government can do to reduce spread in the wider community.

Restrictions that the Government puts in place should be subject to an honest assessment of their costs and benefits. For example, it’s unlikely that closing schools again will reduce spread enough to justify disrupting students’ education for a third year. If the Government thinks it will then it should show us why.

Businesses and the health profession need to plan. They need clear what the rules for an infected person who is otherwise healthy will be. Isolating critical workers may have made sense when the goal was to eliminate, but other Governments are dropping such rules as they recalculate for Omicron.

Even identifying a critical worker will be harder. You probably didn’t think your rubbish collection crew were critical, but you might after they’re out for three weeks with omicron. Either way planning requires clarity on what the rules will be.

Conversely, the strategy must have a laser-like focus on protecting those likely to be hospitalised or die from Omicron. The elderly are an obvious vulnerable group. There should be an all-out sprint to get them and other vulnerable groups to the front of the booster queue. It should then make clear how vulnerable people will be supported in isolation, with food, home care and, if necessary oximeters( to make sure you do not get too sick at home when you should be moved to a hospital).

Silly restrictions that hand tie our ability to fight omicron should be dropped. There are health professionals stuck overseas who would come here. They are responsible, health-conscious people and we need them. For the sake of an overworked medical profession and their soon to be patients, they should be allowed to skip MIQ and self-isolate from tomorrow.

The rest of the world is scrambling for Rapid Antigen Tests, but at least their governments didn’t first ban importing them then approve only four types. We should allow any of the 65 approved by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Authority to be imported from tomorrow. It should just bury its futile vindictive spat with Rako Science and ask ‘how many saliva tests can you do from tomorrow?’

With a new plan in place, the Government must give clarity and stay the course. We know that Omicron will be worse for New Zealand than previous variants, but what makes it worse still is constantly shifting goal posts.

The dates for reconnecting with the world, for example, can’t keep shifting to delay the inevitable. The Government should be clear that once Omicron’s here, the costs of MIQ far outweigh any benefits and allow home isolation for people entering New Zealand immediately.

The Prime Minister has been absent for a month. In some ways that’s understandable, but Omicron doesn’t observe Christmas. This week, she needs to come out of Cabinet with clarity enough to justify her absence.