Ministry of Health Deputy Director-General and head of the Public Health Agency, Dr Andrew Old, will hold a media briefing today in Auckland at 12 noon today to provide an update on the COVID-19 response.
Dr Old will be joined by Dr Anthony Jordan, Clinical Director for the Northern Region Vaccination Programme, Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand.
>> (SPEAKS TE REO MAORI) Welcome to our regular update on our response to COVID-19.
So, I'm Andrew Old, I'm that deputy director general for the Public Health Agency, and I'm joined today by Dr Anthony Jordan.
It's fantastic you're able to join us today, thank you, Anthony.
>> ANDREW OLD: Today I am provide our usually assessment of our COVID-19 outbreak before handing over to Dr Jordan who will speak about the on the ground efforts to boost vaccination rates before I will make some final remarks and open the floor to questions.
Unfortunately, due to availability, we don't have a sign language interpreter at today's briefing.
But live closed captions are available on the live stream on the ministry's website and a transcript will be published afterwards as well.
So, to the numbers, as you will know, we have moved to weekly reporting of COVID-19 figures.
To better reflect changes in the pandemic response.
And in line with how we report other communicationable diseases.
It means we'll start separately publishing more detailed COVID-19 analyses.
So next Tuesday, 27 September, we'll be publishing our first weekly COVID-19 trends and insights report, and that report is intended to come out weekly on a Monday following that.
These reports will include similar information to what is often covered in these briefings such as modelling, case rates, those sort of things.
So in terms of the numbers for the week ending 18 September, as expected, COVID-19 cases have continued to decline.
With a 7-day rolling average of 1337 cases per day.
Hospitalisation were also down, 175 people in hospital on Sunday.
The number of deaths reported with COVID-19 also continues to decline, with 36 people reported to have died with COVID-19 in the week to Sunday.
At this stage, 8 of those are known to have COVID-19, as a contributing factor.
These trends are supported by trends in wastewater testing and case rates among health workers.
S o stepping back, we see from this slide, a sustained decline in case rates across all regions, for 5 straight weeks.
This slide shows hospitalisations and like cases, we can see that hospitalisations too have continued to decline across all regions for the same five-week period.
Deaths reported with COVID have also declined consistently now for seven weeks.
This is the latest modelling from COVID modelling Aotearoa and you can see that COVID-19 case rates have tracked in line with expectations for the last few weeks.
And as expected, this downward trend is starting to slow and come to a possible plateau.
Based on the modelling we now expect COVID-19 to stay at similar levels as it is currently in the coming weeks.
We're in the process of updating our modelling for summer, which will give us the most up-to-date data we can on which to plan.
At this stage, there's nothing to suggest that changes that were made as part of the retirement of the COVID-19 protection framework last week has significantly impacted the level of COVID-19 circulating in the community.
But, as always, we continue to closely monitor that situation and given we're only about 10 days past that, we would expect that any impact of that might be coming in the next week or two.
However, with the lowest cases and hospitalisations in the country since February this year, our population vaccinated and expanded access to antivirals we're in a strong position as we go into the next period.
But it's important to note that we can't be complacent.
COVID-19 is not going away.
And if we want to maintain our strong position, we need to continue to all play our part.
Critical to maintaining our current approach to COVID-19 is continuing to retain a strong focus on vaccination, especially expanding the number of people who have had their first and subsequent booster shots.
While New Zealanders have high rates of vaccination overall, there remains a lot of work to do.
Especially among Maori and Pacific peoples who have lower vaccination rates than other New Zealanders.
Currently 56% of eligible Maori aged over 18 and 61% of eligible Pacific peoples over 16 have had a first booster.
There's work under way across the three health agencies, the Ministry of Health, Manatu Hauora, Te Whatu Ora, to support eligible people, particularly those at higher risk of poor outcomes, and Maori and Pacific peoples, to get their first boosters.
Health districts and Maori and Pacific providers are providing tailored services.
Including after hours and vaccination sites in marae and places of worship.
We are continuing to target mobilisation support to 10 communities around the country, where vaccination rates are comparatively low.
And Dr Jordan will speak more to vaccination in general shortly.
As well as the ongoing importance of vaccination, it's also important that people continue to test and stay home if unwell.
And remember to consider mask use if you're in situations that are crowded, confined, or in close contact with people outside your family for a pro longed period.
When you test, please record the result as it remains a key tool for us to monitor the outbreak as it evolves.
I did want to make a comment now about long COVID.
So, for some New Zealanders, the disruption of getting COVID-19 will continue for months, sometimes years.
We have been working on ensuring that health professionals have the right resources available to treat and manage long COVID, and are closely monitoring international developments in the area to inform our approach.
We have recently released long COVID guidelines for primary care, to add to a growing list of resources on COVID-19 as health professionals around the globe learn more about this condition.
Having these guidelines in place will help clinicians supports their patients in the best ways to diagnose, manage and treat long COVID.
We've been working on this guidelines with an input from a range of health care professionals and people with experience of long COVID, and we'll continue to adapt them.
I'll now hand over to Dr Jordan.
>> ANTHONY JORDAN: Thank you, Andrew.
It's good to be joining you again.
The drop in COVID-19 case numbers, influenza, and other winter viruses is proving to be a sustained trend.
We're seeing positive signs across a suite of measures, further demonstrating our progress achieved together.
I want to thank everyone for doing their part and the hard mahi of our professionals.
Rates of influenza and severe respiratory infection has been at very low levels since July.
They remain stable as well as comparable to receive years following a peak in mid-June.
No cases were detected in the Auckland region in the two weeks to 11 September.
General practice continues to be busy.
But volumes have been tracking down in the last week, they continue to see people returning for planned care.
COVID-19 case numbers in aged residential care are continuing to decline as well.
Now, at their lowest case numbers since earlier in the outbreak this year.
On the latest figures, 6% of facilities are impacted by cases, a significant decrease from the 12% at our last briefing two weeks ago.
Similarly, hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 positive patients are rapidly declining again.
Echoing a trend that COVID-19 and other respiratory pressures continue to track down.
We anticipate these will progress throughout September and October.
And hopefully these improvements will continue.
Pressures are being addressed by focusing on hospital flow, prioritising urgent care, and furthering our regional coordination functions.
Turning now to our vaccination efforts across the mautu.
We have delivered 11 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, a phenomenal effort.
It's important to note that we still have people coming into our vaccination centres, GP clinics, or pharmacies, every day for a vaccination.
Those are not just people ready for a booster, but also we continue to see people opting to have their first doses.
In terms of boosters, over 2.
7 million people aged 16 or over have now had a first booster.
These numbers are now picking up as people become eligible again after having had COVID.
Also, just over 530,000 eligible people aged 50 plus have had a second booster as well.
To that end, there are some incredible programmes of work continuing across to focus on increasing these numbers further.
Speaking to the work that I know here in Tamaki, our Maori and Pacific providers continue to run pop-up events.
We're offering childhood immunisations at these events to improve access to these critical vaccinations for tamariki.
Other examples of work, in South Auckland, work is under way to engage with priority groups, including hapu mama, at six weeks -- infants at six weeks.
We continue to support outreach programmes such as smile, a health pregnancy awareness campaign and a local community street chats programme where there's safe places to corero with local healthcare people who can talk to whanau and individuals.
This mahi is under way via community hubs, and events, and even at whare.
Our mobile teams are on the road, ensuring we reach the whole region.
And we'll support a regional event at the square next weekend, with vaccination advice for COVID-19 and childhood immunisations.
Childhood immunisations are a key focus.
We need to lift the numbers.
These programmes are developed for the community and with the community.
A separate issue about planned care on the upcoming public holiday, the government have announced a one-off public holiday to be held next Monday to recognise the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
We're aware some local hospital networks are considering reducing planned care, given that staff will be seeking to observe this public holiday.
Te Whatu Ora is supportive of this approach.
And the case of any deferred surgery, we expect affected patients to be contacted promptly.
We will continue to consider the national impact as each local network will work through this with their staff.
Finally, next Monday also marks the start of the mental health awareness week.
This year's theme is to reconnect with people and places that lift you up.
The last couple of years have been tough for many of us.
And it would be easy to feel disconnected from people and places that are important to us.
So, please take this opportunity to connect with a friend, or loved ones, have a korero, this can go a long way to helping us through the tough times like these we have been through recently and improve our overall wellbeing.
Back to you, Andrew.
>> ANDREW OLD: Thank you, Anthony.
So, in summary, with cases and hospitalisations plateauing, we have reached a new stage in the pandemic here in New Zealand.
Some of the requirements previously in place have been removed.
But I do want to reiterate, COVID-19 is not over.
And a big part of ongoing management is ensuring we continue to have a highly vaccinated population, especially among our most vulnerable communities.
That remains a focus across health agencies, and for our health providers across the country.
Please, if you're eligible, get vaccinated and get boosted, not only for yourself but your family and community.
With a shift to this new stage of our COVID-19 response, I can confirm for now this is the last routine COVID-19 press briefing we're planning to hold.
I want to thank media for attending this briefing and the over 300 COVID press briefings that we've held since January 2020 and doesn't that feel like a very long time ago.
And that very first press briefing we talked about the novel coronavirus emerging in China and there were four cases in Australia.
We have come a long way since then.
The virus is now part of our lives and will continue to be so for a very, very long time.
But thanks to the steps we have all taken, we are now in a good position to manage it effectively in our communities, and to the future.
Thank you and we are both happy to take questions.
>> REPORTER: US president Joe Biden says the pandemic is over.
Is he wrong?
>> ANDREW OLD: Yes.
So, he is right in that that pandemic is at its lowest level since early 2020.
If you look around the world that is the case.
However, nowhere in the world has completely eliminated COVID-19 and we expect that the pattern of new variants and repeated waves will continue for some time.
We all hope that we'll not get the same sorts of devastate nation -- devastation before.
>> REPORTER: Could we see what happened this winter happen next winter?
>> ANDREW OLD: We're hopeful it won't happen in the same way next winter.
Part of that is our ongoing vigilance, making sure we're monitoring for what is happening internationally in terms of new variants and keeping up with the public health measures that we have talked about.
So we know for the current circulating variants the vaccines we have available now are effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalisation and death, so keeping our vaccination rates high and getting those booster vaccination rates up is really important.
>> REPORTER: Comments like what Biden made make it unhelpful to encourage people to get vaccinated?
>> ANDREW OLD: You will note I've been quite careful to say a number of times it's not over.
Because I do think that whilst we would all dearly love it to be true, me possibly more than many, the reality is that if we do stop thinking about it, and go, well, I have my first two vaccinations, kind of done my bit, I can just carry on.
We do run the risk particularly as the virus continues to evolve, that we'll be back in a situation we don't want to be in.
Isn't it great that hospitalisations and deaths are much lower than they are, New Zealand as a country has done incredibly well internationally on almost all measures.
And particularly, you know, we're sitting at about 2,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, which is, you know, many, much lower than comparable countries have seen.
But if we want that to be our story ongoing, then we need to keep thinking about it.
>> REPORTER: What's the latest.
Update on second - rolling out second boosters for younger people, particularly those under 50?
>> ANDREW OLD: So the Director-General of Health has received advice from the COVID-19 vaccine technical advisory committee on that question.
She has gone back to ask some clarifying questions, including broadening the scope of what was included in that advice.
That's expected to come back within two weeks.
And so, we expect to make a further announcement within the next two weeks on that.
What I would say in addition, though, is that as we've talked about in this briefing previously, there's a large number of eligible people right now today who have not had their first booster.
You can't have a second booster without having your first.
And who are already eligible for second boosters and have not yet taken that up.
Those are the groups where we know the evidence is best, and we encourage people eligible to take up the opportunities.
>> REPORTER: Was the traffic light system being over, what's the formal plan for what happens if we have another surge?
>> ANDREW OLD: I mean, in terms of questions - the frameworks that will replace that in the future, those are questions of government.
I wouldn't want to pre-empt that.
In terms of our ongoing public health approach, we'll be doing regular public health risk assessments.
We have another one scheduled for early October.
It will inform updated advice to government about potential further changes.
The questions about the way those frameworks might look in the future are being worked through now.
And are questions for the government.
>> REPORTER: The ministry used to have a pandemic plan, has it got a new pandemic plan?
>> ANDREW OLD: We now have what is called a national management plan, which is currently in the process of being updated.
So that is something that, as you say, we had in place pre-COVID.
It was largely based around our experiences with influenza why -- influenza.
As we know, COVID-19 is not influenza and it didn't behave like it.
We into the process of updating it.
>> REPORTER: Any timeline?
>> ANDREW OLD: That work will be completed this side of Christmas.
>> Long COVID, we're hearing it's adding strain to chronic fatigue support services.
Is this something you're concerned about?
>> ANDREW OLD: I'm not sure whether Anthony can talk to the service side of it, but I would say in general we are concerned about the potential impact of long COVID on New Zealanders.
As I mentioned, the evidence around long COVID continues to evolve and much of what we know is based on people who had earlier variants of COVID.
So, the experience in New Zealand is almost uniquely an Omicron experience and we don't know what it will look like long term in New Zealand.
But Anthony, did you want to - nope?
So, one of the things I think we - so we have provided guidance to the sector and we'll continue to work across the sector looking at what the options may be for services.
One of the key things that will feed into that is what we think the size of the need is going to be.
That's as I say a bit of an unknown at the moment.
>> REPORTER: So it's still quite unknown how many people who had COVID will get long COVID?
>> ANDREW OLD: Exactly.
There's some indications from overseas but most of those are based on earlier variants.
So, only - literally only time will tell what the impact is truly going to be for New Zealand.
And the other thing is long COVID covers a large spectrum of illness.
So, it's everything from people who have some ongoing symptoms past about 12 weeks, that may be an annoying cough, through to people who have quite debilitating fatigue and other sorts of symptoms.
So there's - there's still a lot we don't know.
But it's something certainly we're concerned about.
>> REPORTER: Not sure who this one is for, but the vaccine supply, are we still - what is the country still bringing in, in terms of supply?
>> ANTHONY JORDAN: So we have contracts in place for the vaccines.
We have live -- relatively good supply in the country to meet the needs for all the eligible groups.
As we seek that advice to come out in the next two weeks, you know, we do have stock to extend eligibility if necessary.
So, we are constantly reviewing the literature alongside the ministry and PHARMAC, and everyone else who has been involved to say is this the vaccine we need for the future?
We are seeing information come out about Omicron specific boosters.
I feel confident we should watch that space.
We've got a good vaccine.
If you look at first and second dose boosting effect on severe illness and hospitalisation, in a hybrid immunity situation, where 50% of the population have COVID, I'm still confident we should continue on where we are.
>> REPORTER: And in terms - the hospital busyness question, so we're hearing from - you say the respiratory illness pressure is coming off, but hearing from people on the ground it's still super busy in hospitals and EDs.
What are you hearing in the northern - the hospitals that you're part of?
>> ANTHONY JORDAN: We're tracking down on some things but there's a lot of other work we have to.
Work in the planned care space, urgent care space, so people who have been waiting to attend primary care, but they just need something right now.
So it is still busy.
>> REPORTER: In terms of the hospitals you look after, are you - what are you doing to help with that pressure on staff and on ensuring that patients can get care?
>> ANTHONY JORDAN: So that's that regional coordination approach we're looking at space across the whole region, the ability to get people in on a timely fashion based on their clinical priority.
Making sure we fully utilise our staff across the whole region.
That's probably the best thing we can do now to make sure that people are getting the care and the time they need.
>> REPORTER: Just one on the vaccine, what about expiry?
Are there any batches due to expire?
>> ANTHONY JORDAN: No.
If you look at the ministry website, we report single digits of numbers of vaccine due to expire.
We get stock in and sort of relatively big lump sums so to speak.
We've had a lot of extension dates for those vaccines that have been in deep freeze as well.
That's given us a relatively sort of long window of opportunity for stock to be used.
>> REPORTER: Just a couple of more.
>> REPORTER: Can we get an update on when we'll see the results of the prevalence survey?
>> ANDREW OLD: So questions about the prevalence survey, there's two elements to that.
There's an infection prevalence survey and also another one.
We've been talking about that for a little while.
That's a bit later than we hoped.
But at this stage the plan is that we'll have that in the community in - October.
So next month.
>> REPORTER: When can we see the results of the application for the vaccines for under fives?
>> ANTHONY JORDAN: So that work is still under way.
We can provide an update after the meeting about what those timelines are.
We're looking pretty carefully returned the world where it has been rolled out to make sure, given we're in an Omicron specific time, relatively low morbidity and mortality around that group whether or not it warrants extending that down.
As you know, those early clinical studies were relatively small and we want to make sure when we look at larger population we have evidence that remains an important part of it.
We definitely continue to monitor that evidence and we'll be able to update you soon.
>> REPORTER: Just measles, how worried are you about the big gap for both children and for young adults, especially in the Auckland region?
With the outbreak?
>> ANTHONY JORDAN: That's definitely a focus for me and my colleagues working in the childhood immunisation space at the moment.
We're using a lot of that resource that we had put forward for COVID-19 vaccination, taking those that are able to offer childhood immunisations and move them across into the outreach space and clinic events to get those MMR rates up.
Particularly at sort of 12, 15, and 18 months.
'Cause in 2020 we had that schedule change.
So we need to - some people may think, I didn't need it until four years, but with that schedule change, just making sure people realise we're offering it earlier now, getting earlier protection against measles.
>> REPORTER: What do you worry about - what is the kind of worst case scenario?
>> ANTHONY JORDAN: Yeah, measles is a disease that spreads very quickly.
It's got a highly efficacy vaccine.
Half of our population can end up hospitalised with measles.
You can get inflammation around your brain, you can get pneumonia.
We never hope we have an outbreak, but it's not something you should plan for.
It's to get our MMR rates up because that's our best defence against measles.
>> Thank you very much.