From reporter Cate Broughton:
Older and vulnerable people are being encouraged to “hunker down” in their homes during the peak of the Omicron virus, by some health experts – but others say this isn’t necessary.
New Zealand epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely is based at Melbourne University and says he encouraged his nearly 80-year-old parents – who live in Rotorua – to stay at home when Omicron cases climb and the virus becomes endemic.
However, Cancer Society medical director Kate Gregory said there was not enough evidence to support giving this advice to cancer patients.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed there was community transmission of the Omicron variant in New Zealand.
The Ministry of Health on Monday reported confirmed Omicron cases in the Nelson-Tasman region, Auckland and Palmerston North.
Blakely said he talked to his parents about continuing their usual activities while using a N95 mask, but “hunkering down” when cases climbed.
“You probably do that for another 10 days until case numbers start to go up in Rotorua, and then you really hunker down. So that’s what we’ve talked about.”
Blakely said “the maths of an epidemic” meant up to half of the population was likely to get infected with Omicron.
“The trick is to make sure the people who get infected are the young ones. So you accept that. You accept there will be hospitalisations associated with that.
But to minimise the hospitalisations, the mortality and morbidity – a bit like trench warfare – you send over the young ones, and you hunker down the oldies and those with co-morbidities.”
Blakely said his parents, who are double vaccinated and have had their booster, had already decided to stay at home when cases climbed.
But he said it was hard to say how long this period should last.
New Zealand’s traffic light setting of red – the highest level of restrictions under the traffic light system –would help to slow the spread of Omicron, and protect essential services from being overwhelmed, but this would also mean the peak of the virus would last longer, Blakely said.
“Here’s the deep irony, the better New Zealanders are at flattening the curve, the longer the hunker down will be.”
Blakely acknowledged prolonged periods of isolation for the elderly and vulnerable could have significant mental health impacts.
In Australia, Omicron has taken a huge toll on the aged-care sector with hundreds of outbreaks in aged care homes. But some families have said the lockdowns were overly cautious and too hard on the elderly residents, most of whom were fully vaccinated.
Wellington GP and Royal New Zealand College of General Practice (RNZCGPs) medical director Bryan Betty said the Australian experience of Omicron showed it could peak for as long as four to six weeks.
Betty said most people – including fit older people – would experience a mild to moderate illness, if infected.
“However, the caveat on this is ... we know the biggest risk factor for a poorer outcome from Covid is age, the elderly population in particular are vulnerable to a poorer outcome with Covid.”
Betty said it would be good for older people to consider staying home, with some support from friends and family, “as the case numbers rise” in the community.
Cancer Society medical director Kate Gregory said there was not enough evidence to date to support advising patients to stay home, but this could change “if we see much higher numbers”.
“If, in a week’s time we are seeing thousands and thousands of cases we may be advising people differently. I think the reassuring thing we’ve seen is that Omicron doesn’t seem to cause such severe disease and we know the vaccine provides very good protection.”
Gregory said for cancer patients the best defence is to be vaccinated and for the people in their households to be vaccinated.”
She said in her experience a “vast majority” of cancer patients had received two doses of Covid-19 vaccine, many with a third primary dose.
“It’s a frightening time, and especially for those who are more vulnerable.
"I think as long as people have the vaccine, wear the mask, do the hand-washing and get tested promptly, I think that’s probably fine. At the moment, that’s the advice we’re giving our patients.”
From local democracy reporter Brendon McMahon:
A "lot of potential work" is seen necessary to repair and improve stopbanks on the Wanganui River flats near Harihari.
The Wanganui River badly damaged rockwalls and eroded farmland during the February flood which also struck Westport.
Already a new protection wall less than 0.5-kilometres long has been built after a huge chunk of farmland on the true right bank of the Wanganui was washed away.
The West Coast Regional Council heard at its May meeting that some of the urgent work was approved by the end of April as an emergency procurement, by the previous director of operations Randal Beal.
The emergency procurement is allowed under council's delegations manual due to natural disasters.
A report to the meeting said verbal quotes were to be confirmed and "availability to start" was the selection criteria.
"Rock lining the wall is a capital cost ... of approximately $100,000 to the adjoining landowners.''
Council engineer James Bell had met with affected landowners from the Wanganui rating district who had confirmed the plan to proceed.
The work had been awarded to Arnold Contracting with onsite stockpiles of rock to be used.
Cr Debra Magner said she had visited the area with regional council staff.
There were two pieces of work to be done, one of which was already under way. The other work would be reliant on rating district approval.
"There's going to be quite a lot of potential work on the Wanganui," Magner said.
Chief executive Heather Mabin said the issue facing the Wanganui rating district linked to a broader issue of how to pay.
From the February flood alone, $326,000 had been spent on emergency works.
"We are very aware that there needs to be a national plan."
From local democracy reporter Brendon McMahon:
The West Coast Regional Council has posted "an unexpectedly large" surplus of $16.6 million in its delayed 2020-21 annual report.
The draft, cleared by Audit NZ, will be tabled on Tuesday at the audit and risk committee meeting, and is expected to be formally adopted next month.
The report is late due to Covid-related constraints on the auditing process. The reporting time was relaxed nationally through a law change for a large number of affected local authorities.
Chairman Allan Birchfield described 2020-21 as a "turbulent year" as the long-term impacts of Covid were felt throughout the region.
Revenue was greater than budgeted by $17.4m, mainly due to the transfer of the Greymouth floodwall assets from the Grey District Council to the regional council. The floodwall has since been valued at $15.6m.
The addition of the floodwall increased the infrastructure asset base to $103.7m, and dominated the council's balance sheet.
Subsidies and grants were $1.1m more than budgeted because of higher than expected funding from the Government for infrastructure projects.
Investment income was up $679,000 because of better than expected returns on investments.
Expenditure was up $809,000, mainly due to unforeseen spending on infrastructure. In particular, $452,000 was spent on modelling for the Westport flood warning forecast, part of the requirements for the proposed flood protection scheme.
In the year to June 30 last year, part-year remuneration for then chief executive Vin Smith totalled $168,115 (2019-20 it was $255,729).
Mr Smith left during July 2021, and therefore any related severance pay will not be disclosed until next year's annual plan.
Total costs for the council's 73 staff was $6.5m (75 staff and $5.8m the previous year).
Elected representative costs were $409,454 (2019-2020 $372,718).
Three staff members earned between $160,000 and $280,000. The council also had eight staff receiving between $100,000 and $159,999; the previous year it had six in that pay bracket.
Current chief executive Heather Mabin said 'governance' costs of $642,152 were over-budget by $220,149.
Ms Mabin said that reflected increased costs of finalising the 10-year long-term plan.
The increased governance cost was predominantly audit fees, she said.
Birchfield said the council was successful in receiving $900,000 in 2020-21 to fund flood resilience projects in the Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport rating districts.
The hunt is officially on for New Zealand's best collection of houseplants
. Which means you could be 2022 Houseplant Hero. There’s some great prizes to be won! To enter, tell us in writing (no more than 500 words) what potted plants you have, the time you put into caring for them, and what you love about them. Send us up to five photos of your indoor plant displays. Email email@example.com. Meanwhile, here's last year's winner Alyce Read, from Nelson.