Omicron shifts health focus to Contract Tracing System

Rowan Quinn

Rowan Quinn

Wellington, December 23, 2021

                                        

                                                Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay. (Pool Photo by Robert Kitchin for Stuff)

 

Omicron could force more changes to the country’s contact tracing system, with the Ministry of Health carefully monitoring the situation in Australia and the UK.

Contact tracing is critical to containing any incursion of the new Covid-19 variant, but the system struggled to keep up during the height of the Delta outbreak.

Tracing will be vital to contain any outbreak over the Christmas period as New Zealanders move around the country.

Omicron, another game changer

Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay said that Omicron was another game changer.

“It spreads fast … cases get infected very quickly after exposure, which makes rapid contact tracing vital and get people to isolate before others are affected,” she said.

Dr McElnay said that Health Ministry is looking closely at New South Wales were Omicron cases are soaring.

“If we had Omicron in the community and if we had, in particular, some superspreading events, we might start to see a surge in cases quite quickly. I think that might be challenging for contact tracing alone to be able to bring those numbers down. Omicron, like Delta, spreads mainly through homes or places where people spent a lot of time in close contact. So that is where the focus would be if a large outbreak developed suddenly,” she said.

High-risk cases study

Any changes to the system could include a greater focus on tracing the highest-risk cases, and on those with very few contacts or who had not been in risky settings, she said.

“We may not spend much time in identifying all contact in individual cases who have not been in high risk located. As did in Auckland, we may stop recording all those locations that we know are unlikely to get cases,” she said.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said that was the right approach.

Contact tracing was a critical part of the country’s efforts to try to stop the health system being overrun with Covid.

“If we had a very fast-moving Omicron outbreak in New Zealand, we would need all the tools that we could get working at maximum effectiveness,” he said.

The ensuing holiday season

It has been a huge year for contact tracers, particularly those in Auckland.

South Seas Healthcare Chief Executive Lemalu Silao Vaisola-Sefo runs a large team including doctors, nurses, testers, vaccinators and contact tracers.

They have been strongly motivated by helping their community are and buoyed by the high vaccination rates, but now everyone needed a break, he said.

“The energy levels slowly diminish over time. The last four weeks have been a really big push for staff,” he said.

Auckland’s Public Health Unit is walking the fine line of giving tired tracers time off, while making sure that they are able to spring into action if needed.

It will have fewer staff working over Christmas and New Year, but many on standby if they need to come back.

Dr McElnay said that if there was an outbreak in a small district health board area like Tairawhiti, the national system will be activated.

There have been major changes since the start of the Delta outbreak, including a National Telephone Service and an email questionnaire allowing more contacts to be reached.

The system could scale up over a two-week period to be able to trace 1000 cases a day, managing 11,000 initial contacts, she said.

Rowan Quinn is Health Correspondent at Radio New Zealand. The above story and pictures have been published under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz.

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