Covid 19: Omicron cases in Auckland, Palmerston North; NZ to move to red in outbreak, Jacinda Ardern rules out lockdowns

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed there won’t be lockdowns when Omicron gets into the community and revealed that Northland will join the rest of New Zealand at the orange traffic light settings from midnight tonight.

Ardern said the government knew, from other countries, that it could take as little as 14 days for Omicron cases to grow from the hundreds into the thousands.

The whole of New Zealand will move to red within 24-48 hours once Omicron enters the community, she said.

The announcement comes as fears grow that Omicron has spread to Palmerston North. There are 39 Covid-19 cases in the community today, the Ministry of Health says.

There were 46 new cases detected at the border. Twenty-one cases are in hospital, with one in ICU.

Fears four Omicron cases have been in community

There is one possible Omicron case in Palmerston North, the ministry says.

The suspected Palmerston North case is considered to have been infectious from January 17 and exposure events associated with their movements include an early childhood centre.

This case was in a MIQ facility in Christchurch and tested negative on day 9, before being released on January 16, after returning five negative test results throughout their stay.

The case became symptomatic yesterday and got tested, returning a positive Covid-19 test result yesterday evening.

The double-vaxxed case is now isolating at home with their family.

Urgent whole genome sequencing is under way, as the case was at an MIQ facility at the same time as known Omicron cases and, as a prudent measure, is being treated as a Omicron case. Investigations are under way to determine the source of infection, including possible in-facility transmission.

Meanwhile two further Auckland people are confirmed to have the Omicron variant and various high-risk premises have been added to the locations of interest. That brings the total to four suspected Omicron cases who have been out in the community.

As well as the Palmerston North case, an Auckland airport worker and a household contact of the MIQ worker with Omicron also have the variant, genome testing has confirmed.

The pair tested positive yesterday.

One additional contact associated with the Auckland Omicron cases has tested positive for Covid-19, the ministry said.

This case is a household contact of the MIQ worker and was already isolating when they tested positive.

Genome sequencing is under way, but the case is assumed to have the Omicron variant.

As of this morning, a total of 88 contacts have been identified in relation to the MIQ border worker with Omicron.

At this stage, 84 have returned negative tests and two have returned a positive result.

A total of 39 contacts have been identified in relation to the worker at Auckland Airport.
So far, 13 have returned negative results.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the source of infection is ongoing.

How NZ will approach Omicron

Not many countries have had the opportunity to introduce a booster before Omicron takes hold, Ardern said, but New Zealand did.

Ardern said she was asking people to think about what they would need if they had to stay at home for a period of time if they or a family member got Omicron.

A graduated system was being developed for different stages of the pandemic, Ardern said.

For hospitals, the plan was focused on a preventative stance. We couldn’t stop Omicron but we could slow it down, Ardern said.

When asked if anything additional was being done for hospitals, Ardern said that work was already done with Delta.

Now we have to take steps to prevent Omicron from overrunning hospitals, Ardern said.

“We have cases knocking at our door. We’ve had cases obviously increase at the border. But it is a case of when, not if. So we need to use every day to prepare,” Ardern said

Ardern said lockdowns were not built into the Covid-19 Protection Framework and they will not be used in the same way as they were in 2020 and 2021. We have vaccines to support us and other mechanism to slow Omicron down, Ardern said.

Omicron was demonstrating the pace at which it moves, Ardern said, and mask use, social distancing and reducing gathering sizes were a focus.

New Zealand has a system in place that has served it well, but the Government is looking at presenting a “graduated” system next week, Ardern said.

Although Omicron makes a strategy of elimination nigh on impossible but the country now has more tools than ever, she said.

No decision had been made on changes to the border, Ardern said, and wouldn’t speak on any hypothetical situation.

In terms of moving out of red,Ardern said would assess things like if the hospitals or healthcare were working well.

Northland moves to orange

Northland is to move to orange and the rest of New Zealand will stay at that stage as the Government prepares for Omicron to enter the community, Ardern said.

“Vaccination rates have continued to increase in Northland and are now at 89 per cent first dose. The easing of the Auckland boundary over summer did not drive an increase in cases so we believe it is safe for Northland to join the rest of the country at orange,” Ardern said.

“We won’t be able to stop Omicron entering the community, but we can use tools to try and slow it down. We need to be on guard, and ready so that is why the country will remain at orange on an Omicron preparedness setting.

“New Zealand has done an incredible job in reducing Delta case numbers especially in light of the Auckland boundary lifting last month and holiday travel. By staying at orange we will be able to hold onto these gains while we continue to make preparations for Omicron.

What you can do at red & orange

The red setting would allow businesses to remain open and domestic travel to continue, but included mask wearing and gathering restrictions to help slow the spread of the virus and keep pressure off our health system.

At orange, people can continue to do everyday activities. There are restrictions to limit the spread of the virus and protect vulnerable people. But you can go to work, school, gyms, places of worship, restaurants and many more places.

Most businesses can open with no restrictions on numbers if they choose to follow My Vaccine Pass requirements, and only allow people with My Vaccine Pass to enter.
If they choose not to follow My Vaccine Pass requirements, there will be limits on the number of people who can be in a venue at one time.

At its peak the daily numbers of Omicron would far exceed the more than 200 cases in one day under Delta and potentially hit the thousands.

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