It is only a matter of time until there is community transmission of Covid-19’s new Omicron variant in South Auckland, says a Pacific public health expert.
Data from South Africa suggests the numbers of people hospitalised, or dying from the new variant are lower than Delta, but the new strain of the virus is far more contagious.
Auckland University associate professor of public health Collin Tukuitonga said the potential impact of the new strain of the virus in South Auckland was a growing concern.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about Omicron, but one of the things we do already know is that it is highly transmissible.”
He said as a result areas like South Auckland were likely to be hit hard in an outbreak, because more people were likely to live in overcrowded and multi-generational households where the threat of transmission was greater.
“Omicron is likely to have a significant impact on those communities. I would say it’s a no-brainer that that’s what’s going to happen,” Dr Tukuitonga said. “And with this variant it’s a matter of when, not if, we get it.”
A Counties Manukau District Health Board spokesperson said it was still too early to carry out accurate modelling to say what might happen if, or when, Omicron finally emerged.
They said the data was not yet available to make an educated prediction on possible numbers.
“We expect this to become clearer later in January 2022.”
The spokesperson said there were many variables that could influence the impact of Omicron in South Auckland, including the rate of transmission, the severity of infections, the impact on hospital and ICU-level care and how responsive it was to treatment.
University of Auckland epidemiologist Rod Jackson said while we did not yet have any community transmission of Omicron in New Zealand, it appeared to be more infectious and therefore the chance of it escaping from managed isolation and quarantine facilities was quite high.
He said if New Zealand got the high case numbers modellers were predicting in other countries like Australia, the threat of it spreading would be that much greater.
“And we know Omicron is a lot more contagious,” Prof Jackson said. “So even if the vaccine is preventing 95 percent of deaths, some cases will get through.”
He said it was purely a numbers game.
“The good news for us is we were late to the party in terms of the national vaccine roll out and we’ve vaccinated virtually everyone,” Prof Jackson said. “And at the moment that is stopping a lot of cases.”
But he agreed with the Counties Manukau DHB that it was too early to make concrete predictions on Omicron.
“At the moment, we just don’t know,” Prof Jackson said.
He said the fact the new variant was first identified in late November meant it was still relatively new.
Prof Jackson said while there were plenty of reports coming out on Omicron in South Africa, there were major demographic differences between countries that needed to be taken into account.
“People are doing their best to make sense of it. But you can’t tell until it has worked its way through a complete demographic of a population.”
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers’ Association and NZ On Air.