DHBs brace for 1800 Omicron cases a day in Auckland

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(RNZ Photo by Claire Eastham-Farrelly)

Justin Latif
Auckland, January 22, 2022

New modelling suggests that Auckland will have more than 1000 daily Omicron cases at the peak of a potential outbreak, but some people are worried that the projections are underestimating the real risk.

Official Projections

Counties Manukau District Health Board (CMDHB) model has suggested that the daily number of cases will range from 1500 to 1800 if Omicron breaks into the Auckland community at the start of February. The virus is expected to drop to between 150 to 330 per day from May.

The projections, prepared by CMDHB Director of Population Health Dr Gary Jackson show that Auckland is likely to experience 175 to 190 hospitalisations on any given day at the height of the outbreak, with at least 10 to 20 cases requiring intensive care.

But based on overseas data, Jackson said there would be 50% less death from the Omicron variant, compared with Delta.

“People are describing Omicron as a mild illness for those with full vaccination and booster, but those not vaccinated are likely to hit very hard. The avalanche of cases is not an overly daunting prospect for staff, who have been at the forefront of previous outbreaks. We know that Omicron is coming, and we are prepared,” he said.

Hospitals in preparedness

Dr Jackson said that the DHBs have contingency plans for Omicron and that systems are in place, as they have been since October 2021.

The three main hospitals in Auckland have a capacity of 180 ICU beds and Middlemore Hospital is preparing to set up a streamlined triage process in its Emergency Department to handle the influx of cases.

“This outbreak will take us up to our capacity, so we expect, like the Delta outbreak. Although we may have to cancel several elective surgeries, we will try to keep the urgent surgeries going as we are still catching up from the last lockdown,” Dr Jackson said.

But he admitted that the numbers could double or even triple.

“I have assumed that we will have a lower rate of cases than Australia, as it has been in previous outbreaks. That was because our population is more compliant and more thoughtful about wearing masks and following other regulations,” Dr Jackson said.

Another Academic warns

However, according to University of Auckland Associate Professor of Public Health Dr Collin Tukuitonga, if the predictions proved to be too low, the region could find itself caught out.

“I am surprised at the numbers in Australia and hence 1800 a day seems conservative. If these are the figures they are using to plan for the numbers of beds and workforce required, then it could lead to South Auckland being exposed if we find that we do not have enough people to do the job and we do not have enough beds,” he said.

Mr Tukuitonga said that while the outbreak in Australia caused fewer hospitalisations than for previous variants, disruption had been felt in many other ways.

“In New South Wales, even sectors like transportation affected, as bus drivers and taxi drivers have been getting sick, supplies to supermarkets are not getting delivered. We could see up to 25% of the health workforce being absent because they are sick themselves. Given that the health system is already stretched, Omicron could still hit really hard,” he said.

Mr Tukuitonga said that the focus should be on additional staff among social service and community health providers.

“While there will be fewer people needing to go to the hospital, the pressure will be more on community care, on GP practices and community nursing. Therefore, that is where the surge of staff and planning needs to happen,” he said.

System comes under pressure

Middlemore Hospital Clinical Director for Acute, Critical and Central Services Dr Vanessa Thornton admitted that existing staffing shortages meant that “our hospital system will be under pressure due to a large number of people likely to be infected.”

“Health sector workforce issues that existed before the commencement of this pandemic remain … and like all employers in New Zealand we do expect workforce disruptions, she said.

Dr Jackson reiterated that getting vaccinated remained a key tool for keeping this outbreak contained.

“As places like Spain and Portugal have shown, where they have similar vaccination numbers, vaccination rates will not stop infections but it prevent serious illnesses and being boosted makes a big difference. So, if it does not come for another month that would be good, as we would have more people boosted, and more children vaccinated,” he said.

But with the Prime Minister only providing scant details on the government’s plans for how it would deal with an Omicron outbreak, and ongoing shortages in crucial medical supplies like N95 masks and rapid antigen test kits, the risks from an impending tsunami of cases cannot be underestimated, Dr Jackson said.

Justin Latif is Local Democracy Reporter at Radio New Zealand. The above report has been published under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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