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Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says the national health system relies on New Zealanders’ continued cooperation as almost 20,000 cases are announced today.

Dr Bloomfield is resuming his appearance at daily 1pm media briefings amid the omicron outbreak, with peak cases and hospitalisations expected in the next few weeks.

He said today nearly 20,000 new cases of covid-19 had been reported, with 373 people in hospital, nine of whom are in ICU.

He said it was hard to estimate how many people in hospital with covid-19 were there because of the virus, as opposed to simply having the virus and being there for a different reason.

However, he said Middlemore Hospital’s estimate of about 70 percent to 80 percent presenting because of covid-19 symptoms gives a good gauge.

There are just under 100,000 active cases across the motu, he said.

“I know that such a high daily case number can be concerning for people to hear, and many of us will now have whānau members who now have covid-19, but it’s important to remember that covid-19 now is a very different foe to what it was at the beginning of the pandemic.”

He said what had helped New Zealand so far had been doing the basics well and people should keep doing this — wearing masks, practising good hand hygiene, and avoiding going out if unwell.

“There’s no doubt the next few weeks are going to be tough, the health system can’t do it alone, so thanks in advance to all New Zealanders for continuing to support our efforts to live with the virus on our terms.”

Watch a replay of the briefing here:

The media conference today. Video: RNZ News

He said the high vaccination rate meant for most people omicron would be a milder illness and could be managed safely at home.

Dr Bloomfield says PCR testing had served New Zealand “incredibly well”, but with thousands of cases each day the country reached the point last week where rapid antigen testing became both useful and appropriate.

He said samples were typically pooled earlier on in the outbreak, but a positive test in a batch means each will need to be retested. Higher test positivity rates now, however, mean it becomes less feasible.

He said prior to February 7, none of the labs had ever exceeded 5 percent test positivity, but the swift increase in positive cases has affected that. Labs have also had other difficulties, including vacancies in roles and sickness because some lab workers had contracted the virus.

Apology over test result backlog
Dr Bloomfield said he wanted to apologise to people whose tests had been delayed, but said they had committed to completing the test processing.

People are still advised to seek a test, though some people facing a longer delay should also seek a rapid antigen test, he said.

The samples affected by the backlog might be slightly less accurate — they were more likely to show a negative result — but all positive results would be accurate.

Dr Bloomfield said some 9000 tests were sent to Queensland for testing, to help clear the backlog. He said the backlog was clearing, but anyone who had had a test on February 23 or earlier, or who had developed symptoms, should collect a rapid antigen test from their local testing centre or seek advice from Healthline.

He said the problem with delays in PCR testing was less to do with delays in rolling out rapid antigen tests, and more to do with the ministry being “a day or two late” to recognise how quickly the virus was spreading.

“Once the samples were in the lab it’s hard to take them out and redistribute them, so we still had capacity across the network but we didn’t have the opportunity to redistribute them and probably if we’d started to do that a day or two earlier, then we may still have had a backlog but perhaps not such a big one.”

Dr Bloomfield said test processing had got to a much more manageable level in the past 24 to 48 hours.

He said there was strong uptake of RATs for people who had symptoms, or who were household or close contacts, as well as surveillance testing at hospitals and aged care facilities.

If people needed to pick up a rapid antigen test, the Healthpoint website had an increasing list of places where they were available.

Dr Bloomfield said there were good numbers of the tests available now — more than five million had been distributed in the last seven days, there were over 12 million in storage, and more than 16 million were expected to arrive this week.

Self-reporting of test results
Bloomfield thanks the more than 40,000 people who have self-reported a rapid antigen test result. He says it is an important measure to give officials a good idea of how far the virus is spreading.

He says people who are unwell will be given enough tests for three tests per eligible person in their household. People who are critical workers can also preorder the tests online from testing centres.

During question time Dr Bloomfield said there was a bit of a lag on whole genome sequencing for those who have been in hospital, and with the short hospital stay times, there is not an accurate picture of how many cases in hospital are omicron versus delta.

The most common symptoms are cough, sore and scratchy throat, a runny nose, and generally feeling unwell, “that sort of flu-ey feeling, the whole body aches”, but people who are not boosted are far more likely to have more severe symptoms.

Dr Bloomfield said the loss of sense of smell and taste does not appear to be as much of a notable symptom for omicron, but some young people had also been experiencing an upset stomach.

The past two days have seen daily cases above the 14,000 mark, and hospitalisations have also continued to increase, reaching 344 yesterday.

It comes as the government yesterday confirmed New Zealanders would be able to return to New Zealand without isolating, with the date for returnees from countries other than Australia brought forward to Friday.

New Zealanders in Australia and critical workers were yesterday able to return without entering managed isolation.

People who are eligible but have not yet got their booster shot are urged to, as it protects against both transmission and severe illness from the omicron variant.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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