New Zealand is preparing to face up to 5,300 cases of Covid-19 a week in Auckland and the neighbouring region of Northland alone next year, even with a vaccination rate of 90%, according to modelling from the Ministry of Health.
The minister of health, Andrew Little revealed the plan for how the health system could manage a surge in cases after the current vaccination drive, as the country recorded 71 new cases on Thursday.
It includes upping intensive care (ICU) beds, preparing to relocate health staff to smaller regions if an outbreak emerges, giving nurses preemptive ICU training and preparing to support people recovering at home.
The number of people in ICU and high dependency units (HDU) is currently at roughly two-thirds of capacity and 16% of available ventilators are being utilised. The capacity ICU and HDU beds nationwide can be surged to 550 beds from its current capacity of 320-340 beds.
Ministry of Health chief medical officer Andrew Connolly said the system is well prepared, but any system would be overwhelmed if the numbers became too great.
Between 0.2 and 0.4% of Delta patients will require ICU care, while the others may need a “short, sharp burst” of hospital-level care, Connolly said.
Providing vaccination levels are high, the vast number of cases would be able to recover at home in the future, with about 5% needing hospital care, Little said.
GP Jeff Lowe said health officials are currently in the “prepare for it stage” as the country moves into managing the virus within the community. The plan will stratify cases in the community by risk according to their health and housing needs. Some people will require monitoring from health services.
To do this effectively relies on the population being vaccinated, Lowe said.
“We have good supplies and we have a good capacity and capability to deliver those vaccinations now and Super Saturday is one of those events for people to get vaccinated.”
The vaccine passport would allow the public to participate in a “classic New Zealand summer again”, he said.
As of Thursday, more than 80% of the eligible population, those aged 12 and over, has had its first dose of the vaccine, and more than 58% is fully inoculated.
The government is phasing out its elimination strategy for a suppression method, as it pushes to vaccinate at least 90% of the eligible population.
“As the prime minister has said that we’re working on this kind of new regime of how we respond to outbreaks and infections,” Little said.
Precautionary measures such as mask-wearing and logging locations will still be a big part of the strategy.
“But once we get to a satisfactory vaccination level for all population groups. Then we can start to relax restrictions, open borders and people can move around more freely … we can only do that safely and responsibly as government when we know that there is a high level of vaccination.”
Little said vaccination rates are tracking well. “I have to say I am more confident today than I was even two weeks ago about hitting 90%.”