Chris Hipkins announced a new initiative aimed at improving access to rapid-antigen testing to people in rural areas.
Video / Mark Mitchell / Dean Purcell / Michael Craig

There are 15,918 new cases today, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced this afternoon.

It comes as a new initiative aimed at improving access to rapid-antigen testing to people in rural areas is announced, as cases continue to rise in various spots around the country.

But Hipkins wouldn’t be drawn on Auckland’s chances of moving from red to orange under the traffic light system, having already passed its Omicron peak.

He said he was yet to have “a firm leaning” for Cabinet’s review of traffic light settings on Monday.

There are 817 people in hospital with the virus, including 24 in intensive care, the Ministry of Health announced this afternoon.

The Ministry reported a further 14 Covid-related deaths.

The deaths reported today included people who had died over the past six days but their deaths were only recently notified to the Ministry of Health.

The ministry said delays in reporting could be associated with people dying with – rather than of – Covid-19, and the virus being discovered only after they had died.

The seven-day rolling average of cases is 14,969 cases.

Hipkins said there will continue to be spikes in coming weeks, which is not unexpected.

“The overall trend is heading in a downward direction.”

Today’s reported deaths take the total number of Covid-related deaths to 317.

The seven day rolling average of reported deaths is 15.

Of the people whose deaths were reported today, four were from the Auckland region, four from Waikato, one from the Lakes DHB, one from the Wellington region, one from Nelson Marlborough, one from Canterbury, one from South Canterbury and one person was from the Southern region.

Five of these people were aged in their 70s, six were in their 80s and three were in their 90s.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with their whānau and friends at this sad time,” the ministry said in its 1pm statement.

On RATs and the Traffic Light system

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said at a press conference this afternoon he was yet to have “a firm leaning” for Monday’s review of traffic light settings.

“We’ll be following closely the public health advice we get over the weekend.”

The main difference between red and orange was the size of indoor gatherings, he said. There is no limit under orange.

“The main thing we’re all looking for is where we’re at in terms of the overall peak.”

In some parts of the country case numbers were continuing to trend up, he said.

He wouldn’t be drawn on Auckland’s chances of moving to orange, having already passed its Omicron peak.

But he did confirm the traffic light system allowed for the possibility of different regions to be in different settings.

Hipkins said that the rate of hospitalisations and ICU patients would be one of the things that Cabinet would weigh up when considering the country’s traffic light settings.

Those issues would lag behind the drop in case numbers from the peak.

Hipkins said there was nervousness in the community and the public sentiment was “finely balanced” about where we sit in the Covid response at the moment, but he said people mainly accepted that we were now living with Covid.

Hipkins said he had asked his staff not to tell him about particularly nasty correspondence to him personally.

He said if a new protest popped up at Parliament next week, it would be hard to know what they were protesting about given the vaccine pass would be dropped.

He said even with no more vaccine passes, there was still a very high rate of two-dose coverage and those people don’t suddenly become unvaccinated.

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said this afternoon that more than 95 per cent of people can access rapid antigen tests within a 20 minute drive, but a new initiative aimed at improving access to 250,000 people in rural areas.

“DHBs already have initiatives underway to reach their rural communities. The service launched this week aims to connect households up with those initiatives.”

“Everyone should be able to access a RAT,” Hipkins said.

Examples of DHB-led initiatives include:
• Whanganui DHB has distributed RATs via jet boats up the river and via stock trucks travelling around the region.
• West Coast DHB’s Covid-19 vaccination team who travel to remote areas have a stock of RATs onboard and are distributing RATs to those who meet the criteria.
• South Canterbury has initiated a proactive distribution of RATs to the high-country stations in their region.

Asked why the rural initiative was being rolled out now and not before the Omicron peak, Hipkins said the work in the beginning was to get RATs accessible as widely as possible before focusing on “smaller areas”.

On vaccines for children, Hipkins said he expected vaccine uptake to be “slow” for the 5-11 age group.

“A lot of work” was going on with local health providers and schools to increase that uptake, he said.

“We knew this was going to be a long, slow grind, if you like, to get those vaccination rates up for children.”

He urged parents to get their kids vaccinated, though there wasn’t the same Government pressure as there was for the adult population.

“We’re seeing a decline in the uptake of vaccination across the board at the moment.”

A Covid-19 vaccination drive in Manukau. Photo / Alex Burton
A Covid-19 vaccination drive in Manukau. Photo / Alex Burton

Part of the reason was people who had caught Omicron and couldn’t be vaccinated for three months after they were infected.

Advertising campaigns were continuing to target the 5-11s, as were grass roots programmes to inform parents.

“That is slower, but that is the way we’re going to reach those groups.,” Hipkins said.

He said providing vaccinations on site in schools made more sense in isolated communities where schools were less likely to be located right next to a vaccination site. DHBs were making those decisions, he said.

He said he was awaiting advice on a booster for those aged 12 to 17.

Verrall said new information on that age group had recently been submitted to Medsafe.

Hipkins said Medsafe was expecting to consider that new information in the coming weeks.

Hipkins said the Government’s early decision to buy four different vaccines would see some wastage due to having a Pfizer-based rollout, but there were so many unknowns at the time and it justified a diverse vaccine portfolio.

Verrall said she was working with officials on enabling pregnant women to have all the support they need in hospital when they give birth.

Hipkins said hospitals were trying as hard as they could to allow such support people, but they also needed to manage the risks of Covid to allow the hospital operations to keep running as much as possible.

On Long Covid, Verrall said it was a recognised condition, and “there is a role for greater support” though there were currently no guidelines on whether people suffering longer symptoms should exercise, for example.

Verrall said the last she heard of a Delta case was three or four weeks ago.

“It’s all Omicron now.”

Hipkins defended the Government’s efforts to reach Māori communities with lower vaccination uptake, and said those efforts were continuing.

“There is still a degree of resistance in pockets of those communities. I’m not sure there’s more the Government can do [for them].”

Overall numbers

The seven day rolling average of community cases is 14,969.

There are now 104,769 active Covid-19 community cases in the country.

The average age of those in hospital with Covid-19 is 58.

The 817 people hospitalised with Covid-19 are in Northland (30), North Shore (129), Middlemore (170), Auckland (139), Waikato (82), Bay of Plenty (25), Lakes (13), Tairāwhiti (two), Hawke’s Bay (30), Taranaki (17), Whanganui (nine), MidCentral (21), Hutt Valley (17), Capital and Coast (30), Wairarapa (one), Nelson Marlborough (15), Canterbury (57), South Canterbury (three), West Coast(one) and Southern (26) hospitals.

Of those in Northern Region (Northland and Auckland) hospitals and excluding emergency departments, 68 cases (or 15.89 per cent) are either unvaccinated or not eligible; 13 cases (or 3.04 per cent) were partially immunised

The vaccination status of 81 cases (or 18.93 per cent) was unknown, the ministry said.

Meanwhile, 48 cases have been detected at the border.

The ministry said in a statement it was encouraging to see the numbers continue to decline which supported the trend seen across the seven day rolling average.

Today’s seven day rolling average is 14,969, compared with the seven day rolling average of cases last Wednesday which was 17,111.

The ministry said getting boosted continued to be one of the most important was people could protect themselves from Omicron and severe illness.

“There is a much lower risk of being hospitalised if you are up to date with your vaccinations, which, for Omicron, includes a third or booster dose if eligible.”

To date, 72.7 per cent of those eligible have had a booster.

Booster rates for Māori and Pacific peoples, aged 12 and older, are 57.9 per cent and 59.4 per cent, respectively.

Across all ethnicities, 96.3 per cent have had one dose of Covid-19 vaccine and 95.1 per cent have had their second dose.

For Māori, aged 12 and older, 91.1 per cent have had one dose and 88 per cent have had two.

The Government is expected to update advice about vaccine passes today. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The Government is expected to update advice about vaccine passes today. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Of eligible Pacific peoples, 98.2 per cent have had their first dose and 96.4 per cent have received their second.

Almost 54 per cent of children aged 5-11 have had one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and 15.9 per cent have had two.

For Māori children, 34.8 per cent have had one dose and 7.3 per cent have had a second dose.

For Pacific children, these figures are 47.1 per cent and 8.2 per cent, respectively.

In the last 24 hours, 3259 PCR tests were processed.

In the seven days to March 29, 11.9 million RATs were dispatched.

Deadly day

It comes after the darkest day of the pandemic so far yesterday, when a record 34 deaths were reported, and a top Covid-19 modeller warns we could have 10 to 12 deaths a day for weeks to come.

Epidemic modeller Professor Michael Plank told TVNZ’s Breakfast this morning experts have been surprised about how the Covid Omicron variant wave has behaved in different regions, in terms of timing, particularly in Auckland and Canterbury.

Yesterday’s 17,148 Covid community cases continued a decline for the seven-day rolling average to 15,565, compared with 17,020 last Tuesday.

Yesterday, 842 people were in hospital across the country and 26 in ICU – both rates that remained relatively steady as hospitalisations lagged behind case numbers.

The reduction in case numbers was most pronounced in Auckland. More than 4000 cases were reported there last Monday and about 2300 yesterday.

Canterbury and South Canterbury combined had a higher average than Auckland, and it had increased since last week.

Plank said the Auckland-Canterbury comparison is that they are quite different stages of the outbreak.

Auckland had a very high peak around about three weeks ago. Those numbers had come down a lot now, he told TVNZ’s Breakfast.

It looked like Covid cases in Canterbury had also peaked, he said.

On deaths, Plank said the way a Covid death is defined is a death within 28 days of a positive test result.

“You’ve got that four-week period after a positive test when…those deaths are going to still be happening,” he said.

Plank noted there was also a lag from cases to hospitalisations and those hospitalisations that led to death.

“Unfortunately, we will continue to see deaths – probably around the current rate, sort of around about 10 or 12 a day a day for the next few weeks – before it, hopefully, starts to taper off.”

On vaccinations, Plank said those with the booster shot helped hugely to protect people from becoming severely ill, if they contracted Covid-19.

University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker said New Zealand’s daily Covid-related deaths per million over a seven-day rolling average were now higher than in the US, which was about a month out from its Omicron peak.

“At the moment, New Zealand’s mortality is moving into the middle or upper range for a high-income country with the exception of Hong Kong, which is extremely high.

“For the first time now, our daily mortality rate has passed the United States. We won’t be in that range for very long, maybe a week or two. It’s still a shock for us.”

On March 27, the US’ daily mortality rate was 2.3 and New Zealand’s was 1.9.

Taking into account yesterday’s moving average of 15 deaths, Baker said New Zealand’s rate had passed that of the US and now sat at 2.9.

The US mortality rate with Omicron peaked around the first week of February this year at close to 8 deaths per million.

Its highest mortality rate in the pandemic overall was in January 2021 when it was over 10 deaths per million with the first variant, and before the vaccine rollout had ramped up.

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