SunLive – Omicron may impose changes to contact tracing

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

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

Tracing will be key to containing any outbreak over the Christmas period as New Zealanders move across the country.

Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay said Omicron was a game-changer.

“It spreads quickly…cases get infected very quickly after exposure,” she says.

This makes rapid contact tracing all the more vital, to isolate them before they can expose someone else, McElnay says.

The department was looking closely at New South Wales where Omicron cases were skyrocketing, McElnay said.

“If we had Omicron in the community and if we had, in particular, superspreader events, we could start to see a fairly rapid increase in cases, and I think it could be difficult for contact tracing alone to be able to bring those numbers. down.”

Any changes to the system could include a greater focus on tracing the highest-risk cases, with less emphasis on those with very little contact or who have not been in risky environments, he said. she declared.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker says this is the right approach.

He says contact tracing is an essential part of the country’s efforts to try to prevent the healthcare system from being overrun by Covid.

“If we had a very rapid outbreak of Omicron in New Zealand, we would need all the tools we could operate at maximum efficiency,” he says.

The Covid Tracer app used to scan a QR code. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas.

It’s been a huge year for contact tracers, especially those in Auckland.

South Seas Healthcare chief executive Lemalu Silao Vaisola-Sefo leads a large team including doctors, nurses, testers, vaccinators and contact tracers.

They were strongly motivated to help their community and buoyed by the high vaccination rates, he says, but now everyone needs a break.

“Energy levels are slowly decreasing over time. The last four weeks have been a really big push for the staff.”

The Auckland Public Health Unit is working to give tired tracers time off, while ensuring they are able to step in if needed.

It will have fewer staff working over Christmas and New Year, but many will be on standby if they are to return.

McElnay says if there is an outbreak in a small district health board area, like Tairawhiti, the national system will spring into action.

There have been big changes since the start of the Delta outbreak, including a nationwide phone service and an email questionnaire to reach more contacts.

The system could scale over a two-week period to be able to trace 1,000 cases a day, handling 11,000 initial contacts, she says.

-RNZ/Rowan Quinn.

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