As cases soar, New Zealand finally faces its Covid toll

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – For much of the past two years, Covid-19 was a phantom presence in New Zealand, a plague experienced primarily...

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – For much of the past two years, Covid-19 was a phantom presence in New Zealand, a plague experienced primarily through reports from distant lands.

Now suddenly it has become a very personal threat.

New Zealand is in the throes of a major outbreak of the Omicron variant, with the virus spreading at what could be the fastest rate in the world. On Thursday, the country reported 23,194 new cases, a number once unthinkable in a small island nation of around five million people where the record number of daily cases before the current surge was a few hundred.

The explosion in cases came as the government, under political pressure, relaxed its strict regulations intended to prevent the spread of the virus, and the highly transmissible Omicron reduced the effectiveness of remaining controls.

It has filled many New Zealanders with anxiety as they learn to live with the pandemic risk the rest of the world has faced since the start of 2020.

“For the vast majority of the pandemic, most New Zealanders did not know anyone who had Covid-19. That is changing massively now,” said Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland. “This is the first time most New Zealanders have faced Covid-19 at home.”

While the ever-increasing number of cases may be troubling, New Zealand was perhaps as well placed as it could have been for its deferred account with the virus.

Earlier in the pandemic, before the population was widely vaccinated, the country kept infections and deaths very low through a strict quarantine system for incoming travelers, lockdowns during epidemics and blackout periods. isolation for those who tested positive or who were close contacts.

The number of cases was often zero and life for long periods resembled a pre-pandemic period. Even after New Zealand began to move away from a “Covid zero” strategy following the emergence of the Delta variant, case numbers remained relatively low.

When the Omicron variant arrived – which is more contagious but often produces milder symptoms – the country was well protected. Ninety-five percent of New Zealanders over the age of 12 have been vaccinated and 57% have received a booster shot.

With this combination of strict measures and widespread inoculation, the country has reported just 56 virus deaths throughout the pandemic – by far the lowest rate of any major democracy.

But New Zealand’s initial caution over the virus has become politically untenable this year as citizens living abroad protested limits on their return and business advocates called for fewer restrictions.

In response, the government weakened its pandemic controls. Last week it scrapped many self-isolation requirements and announced on Monday that vaccinated New Zealanders could freely enter the country without self-isolating or quarantining. New Zealand remains closed to international tourists.

With the virus now spreading rapidly, the country has been forced to undergo a “big psychological shift”, said Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in Dunedin.

While the approach to managing the virus was once one of “collective protection”, Dr Baker said, it is now one of “much more individual and family responsibility”.

The government has tried to prepare the public for this change by warning that New Zealanders’ experience of the virus will change. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted last week that “very soon we will all know people with Covid-19 or we will potentially have it ourselves”.

Modelers estimate that each Omicron-positive New Zealander infects an average of 4.64 other people – the highest rate among 180 countries analyzed. Experts estimate that half the country could be infected within three months.

“We are finally experiencing the hard side of exponential growth,” said Dr Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland. “I feel quite nervous for the rest of the year.”

Jin Russell, a community and developmental pediatrician at the University of Auckland, said some vaccinated New Zealanders just wanted to get on with their lives.

But for families whose members are at increased risk of contracting the virus, it’s a troubling time. “And then there are other people who continue to mourn the elimination strategy and live quite restricted lives as they try to avoid or delay catching the virus,” Dr Russell said.

About 40% of New Zealanders are now working from home, according to Brad Olsen, senior economist at Infometrics, a consultancy in Wellington. On Tuesday, lawmakers participated in parliamentary debates remotely for the first time.

Major outbreaks have also occurred in other countries, like australia, which relaxed strict pandemic measures. Australia’s peak, however, occurred during the Southern Hemisphere summer, which Dr Baker said significantly slowed the spread of the virus.

New Zealand’s outbreak, by contrast, came as workplaces settled into the business year and students returned to school and college. Ashley Bloomfield, Chief Health Officer of New Zealand, called it is a “national superspreader event”.

At the University of Otago, for example, students held a series of big parties where hundreds of people were exposed to someone positive for Omicron. The police intervened to prevent another party to which Covid-positive students intended to invite dozens of friends who were also infected.

“The police told them it was a stupid idea,” Anthony Bond, a senior police sergeant, said at the time.

While it was a minority of students, in the weeks that followed the virus spread rapidly through large apartments with multiple people, according to local student association president Melissa Lama. .

As of Tuesday, there were more than 3,200 active cases of Covid-19 in Dunedin, with several hundred more people self-isolating as household contacts. Students are worried about the spread of the virus and frustrated by the individual pressure they feel to manage it, Ms Lama said.

Elsewhere in the country, anger over the government’s response to Covid-19 has produced a different kind of superspreader event. In Wellington, the capital, hundreds of protesters opposed to vaccination mandates occupied the grounds surrounding Parliament in a sometimes violent demonstration that lasted more than three weeks.

After serious clashes between police and protesters, several officers began reporting Covid-19 infections. Partly because of the health risk, officers fought protesters to clear occupancy Wednesday.

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Newsrust - US Top News: As cases soar, New Zealand finally faces its Covid toll
As cases soar, New Zealand finally faces its Covid toll
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