Two Covid-infected people have been confirmed to have the Omicron variant in Auckland, health officials have confirmed.
An Auckland airport worker and a household contact of the MIQ worker with Omicron both also have that variant, genome testing has confirmed.
The pair had both tested positive yesterday.
One of the infected people was out in the community on Tuesday this week (January 18). The case visited Ara-Tai Cafe in Auckland’s Halfmoon Bay between 12.30pm and 2pm.
Cafe customers seated inside during that time are considered close contacts and are asked to self-isolate and get tested immediately and on day 5.
“Further isolation and testing requirements will be provided by Public Health,” the Ministry of Health said late last night.
Those seated outside are considered casual contacts and are advised to self-monitor for Covid symptoms for 10 days.
Meanwhile the country is likely to remain in the orange setting of the Covid traffic light system after Cabinet’s first meeting of the year, with the Government set to unveil plans to counter an Omicron community outbreak.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to set out any change to the traffic light settings at a press conference at Labour’s caucus retreat in New Plymouth today following yesterday’s meeting of Cabinet ministers.
Those decisions are likely to include moving Northland to the orange setting as the region’s vaccination rates near 90 per cent for first doses, and because increased travel over summer has not resulted in a dramatic increase in cases.
However, despite very high vaccination rates in some regions and declining Delta cases, the rest of the country is expected to be held at orange as part of the Omicron plan.
It would help slow the spread if Omicron cases in the community are not detected quickly, and is an incentive for people to get vaccinated.
Ardern is also expected to spell out what an Omicron outbreak is likely to look like for New Zealand – including potential case numbers showing at its peak the daily numbers of Omicron will far exceed the peak of more than 200 cases in one day under Delta and potentially hit the thousands.
She is also expected to discuss the ramifications for that on contact tracing and testing.
Ardern could provide some details of the Omicron plan – although detailed plans on issues such as care for positive cases, the rules for isolating after potential exposure and stand down periods are not expected for another week or two.
The Government’s current strategy is to keep Omicron out of the community for as long as possible to buy time for boosters and preparation.
As of yesterday, there had been at least 370 cases of Omicron in MIQ since December 1, and 56 new Covid-19 recorded cases yesterday at the border.
Cabinet is also considering tweaks to “Omicronise” the traffic light settings. The measures recommended by director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield include more mask use at all levels, and smaller gathering limits, especially at the red setting.
The whole country is likely to be put into the red setting once Omicron spreads in the community, and stay there until case numbers peak and start to drop again. The Government considers regional borders, such as that deployed around Auckland for Delta, will have little effect due to the variant’s transmissibility.
The trigger for that shift to red would be unexplained community transmission.
Yesterday, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the spread from the Stamford Plaza MIQ worker, who has tested positive for Omicron, and yesterday’s airport worker, who is being treated as a likely Omicron case, was so far contained to close and household contacts and there were no surprise cases as yet.
However, the arrival of Omicron could also help firm up a date for returning travellers to isolate at home rather than in MIQ – a move that has been put on hold as the Government leans on MIQ to keep Omicron at bay.
That, and the pressure on MIQ from positive cases, has meant delaying a move to the home isolation model for returning New Zealanders – and this week’s cancellation of an MIQ ballot for spaces in March and April.
The Black Caps have also cancelled their upcoming tour to Australia, citing uncertainty about MIQ, and Hipkins said MBIE was also reviewing group bookings to see if any could be jettisoned to create space.
Hipkins said it was still the intention to move to home isolation for those other than unvaccinated and high-risk travellers, but the dates for that were uncertain.
However, he said it was possible that MIQ spaces would not be needed by travellers by March or April – an indication that once Omicron was in the community the Government could move to home isolation for travellers since MIQ would no longer be doing the job of keeping Omicron out.
“I acknowledge that people want to know when they’re going to book. People also want to know whether they’re going to need to book as well. I think there is a lot of people who would prefer to isolate at home … rather than have to book through MIQ. We have to finalise those decisions.”
And while thousands of Kiwis stranded offshore have slated the ballot cancellation, the move has been praised by experts who say more time is needed to prepare the country for an inevitable Omicron outbreak.
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker while the pause would anger many New Zealanders, it was an opportunity to delay Omicron’s entry.
The number of infected people at the border needed to be turned down and action was needed “now”.
University of Otago professor of public health Nick Wilson said the Government should take a stance on flights arriving from high risk countries like the United States and Australia.
“It could be that flights could resume relatively quickly but we really want to get extra time to allow New Zealanders to get boosted and for children to get vaccinated and to actually learn how to deal with his outbreak.
Ardern, ministers and Labour MPs will spend much of today at the yearly Labour caucus retreat, where MPs will be briefed on the priorities of the year – including a briefing on the economic outlook by Finance Minister Grant Robertson, the health reforms and climate change as well as Covid-19.
Labour’s retreats also involved families, with dinners on both nights with partners and children.
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