Without a Trace: Contact tracers miss two Omicron cases, system shortcomings are highlighted

Despite government assurances that contact tracing was nearly foolproof, the Omicron outbreak quickly highlights the shortcomings of the system, writes Matthew Scott.

TO ANALYSE: The first signs of contact tracers unable to track the burden of new positive Covid cases in the community have emerged.

Two cases from the Omicron outbreak underwent testing and received positive test results without hearing from the contact tracing team.

The cases were an Air NZ worker from the Auckland flight to Nelson and a kitchen worker from Summerset Retirement Village in Flatbush, where a positive case among staff has now led to a mini-lockdown for residents.

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With cases already difficult for them to follow, this phase of the pandemic is proving more difficult for contact tracers.

Jenny Evans/Getty Images

With cases already difficult for them to follow, this phase of the pandemic is proving more difficult for contact tracers.

Contact tracers are responsible for identifying potential contacts of a positive case and contacting them to provide advice on testing and self-isolation.

If people don’t log in or leave contact details when they visit what become places of interest, tracing work can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Writing in Newsroom last week, University of Otago epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig warned: ‘We can expect contact tracing to drop pretty quickly.

And indeed, on Monday, the Department of Health reported that the contact tracing team had a busy day looking for anyone who might have been near a suspected case of Omicron.

However, a Department of Health spokesperson said the cases were not existing close contacts of other cases, meaning they were not known until they tested positive.

Yet both were listed as having come into contact with the Nelson-Tasman family. Both cases were documented as having been at places of interest, one on the same flight and the other at the same wedding.

The lapses run counter to government assurances towards the end of last year that contact tracing could handle the summer surge, with a Department of Health spokesman saying the system could handle 1,000 new cases daily or 6,000 contacts per day.

Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield conceded no doubts about the system. “I’m confident in our contact tracing capability, acknowledging again that the way we use it has changed to be very focused on those very close, close contacts,” he told Newsroom in November.

The problem is that an event like a wedding or several hours enclosed in the tight confines of an airplane cabin with limited ventilation can produce a lot of very close contacts.

An Air NZ spokesperson reported that an air crew employee had been tested after developing symptoms, with no communication from contact tracers.

Similarly, the Summerset Retirement Village kitchen worker was reportedly invited to the wedding at the Totara Event Center in New Lynn on Saturday, Jan. 15, attended by a family who had flown in from the Nelson area.

The first family members to attend the wedding tested positive Thursday morning. But it wasn’t until Friday night that the worker was told by another wedding attendee and went to get tested on his own. Although he works with vulnerable older people, he was not approached by contact tracers until told of the positive result on Saturday.

A spokesperson for Summerset Retirement Village said the company acted immediately after hearing the worker’s positive test result by deep-cleaning the kitchen and closing the village and care center completely.

More than 300 Covid tests were then carried out among staff, care homes and residents of the village.

As public health strategy evolves, contact tracing is set to become less important, with Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins even noting yesterday that at some point suspected cases won’t even be asked out and to get an exam.

It portends a new phase of the pandemic for New Zealand, where halting the spread has been replaced by slowing the spread and reliable tools of the past two years like contact tracing and MIQ are replaced by booster injections and self-isolation.

The difference is that the latter is much more about personal responsibility – the responsibility to keep your immunity in good shape with the best tools at hand, and the responsibility to keep yourself away from others if you wake up sneezing. and coughing.

Tuesday’s Department of Health statement appears to be intended to lower expectations about the effectiveness of contact tracing in this new era.

One of the new hotspots is a busy Sunday night party at the Pukekohe Indian Hall.

“The Auckland Regional Public Health Department believes a large number of people attended this event,” the statement from the Department of Health said. “Anyone in this location at the relevant times is urged to get tested immediately and self-isolate until a negative result is returned.”

Tracking down everyone who attended the Pukekohe event wouldn’t be easy if everyone didn’t scan.

But if the government’s indications are to be believed, the days of people being searched by places visited as the first line of defense against the virus may be coming to an end.

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