“It’s not time to give up your mask use just yet.”
This is the message University of Otago (Wellington) epidemiologist Michael Baker had for Ryman residents and team members in a village-wide zoom presentation yesterday.
His talk covered New Zealand’s response to the pandemic so far, what we have learnt from COVID-19, and what our biggest challenges ahead will be.
He said the elimination strategy, adopted, was the best response at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Elimination gave us time to get vaccines in place and prepare for what was to come. It gave us time to avoid the early COVID-19 strains.
“Ultimately we saw low deaths from those first strains because of our response as a nation.
“New Zealand also had some of the most freedoms in the world during this period when our borders were shut, compared to a lot of other countries that had very little freedoms and were experiencing lockdowns.”
He said after COVID eventually got through the borders, New Zealand moved to a suppression phase, where the traffic light system was introduced, and public health measures were put in place.
“During this time, we had to put limits on gatherings, enforce mask wearing and encourage vaccination.
“Not only were we fighting a war against COVID, but we were also fighting a war against misinformation at the same time.”
However, he said, the biggest challenges were yet to come as New Zealand opened up to the world again and tried to return to normal, as much as possible.
“Viral evolution is probably the hardest challenge to overcome.
“Viruses always evolve just like the flu keeps evolving.
“Now that we are connected with the world, we are importing the world’s cases and see the same variants here as we do overseas. New viruses will arrive here very quickly.”
In addition to the effects of COVID-19, New Zealand is also seeing a rise in the number of cases of ‘long COVID’, which is when symptoms of COVID can persist for months after the acute infection.
Mr Baker said the best things people could do to keep themselves safe were wearing masks, regular RAT testing, and vaccination.
“New variants will arrive here very quickly, so we shouldn’t give up mask use just yet.”
Ryman residents asked questions such as - how safe is it outdoors without a mask when you’re eating and drinking close to other people?
To which he gave the advice, that the risk was very low outdoors and that the only time we should be worried was if it started to feel a little like ‘indoors’ – when crowded, in still air and with people very close together.
Another question asked by residents was, why is the fourth booster targeting only over 50’s and will we have to keep getting boosters?
“Over 50s are heading into the more vulnerable age group, so we want to give them as much protection as possible. Regarding the boosters, I would expect to see something in the future like the flu shot every year. As variants evolve our vaccines have to evolve too,” he responded.
Mr Baker said, in summary, that it was critical to use evidence-informed strategies when responding to public health threats like COVID-19, and that we could take the knowledge from this pandemic and use it to well prepare the country’s infrastructure and public health services for any future threats.
The World Health Organisation is currently working towards an International Pandemic Treaty, to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and responses.