Covid 19 Omicron: Hope Omicron can be contained longer depends on South Island sequencing results today

Omicron is the new strain of Covid-19, first discovered in South Africa in November 2021. Video / NZ Herald

Health teams race to prevent an Omicron outbreak from flaring up in the community after another airport worker is confirmed positive and five Air NZ flights have been designated as sites of interest.

There are now six cases of Omicron community after the highly contagious strain slipped into the air network and infected two Auckland Airport employees, an MIQ employee and two close contacts.

Another Omicron-positive individual spent two days in Palmerston North while potentially contagious after being released from a managed isolation facility.

All eyes will also be on the genome sequencing results today for nine Covid-positive people in the South Island town of Motueka and an Air NZ crew member linked to them, who may have been contagious on five flights.

The sequencing will reveal whether the cases are contaminated with the Delta or Omicron variants.

Michael Plank, a professor at the University of Canterbury, said if these cases have Omicron, it will likely trigger an outbreak.

“Obviously that’s a significant number of cases and a significant level of exposure on five flights, and with no clear link to the limit, as far as I know,” Plank said.

“That would indicate that there are likely many more cases that have not been found.

“But that’s a big if right now, and we won’t know until the sequencing is done.”

It’s because hundreds of Omicron cases have been picked up at the border in recent weeks.

The wave of borderline cases and recent Omicron cases slipping into the community has led Plank and other experts to warn that it will likely be just weeks or even days before a wider outbreak is seen.

That could lead to Auckland having up to 1,800 cases a day within weeks of community transmission, they say.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also urged Kiwis to prepare, saying it’s a matter of when, not if an outbreak will happen.

She said all of New Zealand would go to the red traffic light within 24 to 48 hours of Omicron transmission through the community.

“So far we have managed to control the leaked borderline cases thanks to those people who tested early and our contact tracing system works well, but sooner or later our luck will run out,” Plank said.

Another Auckland Airport employee has been confirmed to have Omicron while the race is underway to get booster shots in Kiwi arms.  Photo / NZME
Another Auckland Airport employee has been confirmed to have Omicron while the race is underway to get booster shots in Kiwi arms. Photo / NZME

“This happens regularly enough that you wouldn’t be surprised if something slips through the net in the coming weeks or even sooner.”

Leading microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles of the University of Auckland worried that the government’s red traffic light system would do little to contain an Omicron outbreak.

Under red conditions, public facilities and shops may operate with capacity limits, with restaurants and cafes serving up to 100 people if they use a vaccine pass.

But Wiles said indoor dining, nightclubs and similar activities would pose a major risk in an Omicron outbreak and said certain activities and locations should be shut down.

“If we can stop people from spreading the virus, we can stop Omicron. And the more we do to stop the transmission, the faster it will be over.”

It’s because the nine Covid-positive Motueka cases reported yesterday all came from the same household.

They have been linked to an Air NZ plane and crew member who also tested positive for the virus.

Ben Johnston, Air NZ’s chief physician, said the worker had been fully vaccinated and found positive as part of routine testing.

“Close contacts, including other members of our aircrew, are advised and will be tested and isolated according to the requirements of the Ministry of Health.”

He said he is confident staff are following Covid precautions and protocols “diligently”.

The health ministry said the crew member was working on five flights while they were potentially contagious and that they have named sites of interest. The flights are:

• Flight NZ 5083 from Auckland to Nelson at 5:20 PM on January 16
• Flight NZ 5080 from Nelson to Auckland at 4pm on January 19
• Flight NZ 5077 from Auckland to Nelson at 2pm on January 19
• Flight NZ 5049 from Auckland to New Plymouth at 7:50 PM on January 19
• Flight NZ 5042 from New Plymouth to Auckland at 1:50 PM on January 20

The ministry also confirmed yesterday that a second Auckland Airport employee had the Omicron variant.

The worker has possible links to Covid-positive travelers in controlled isolation in Rotorua and Auckland.

People queue for vaccinations and booster shots at the Nelson center on Paru Paru Rd after nine new cases were found in nearby Motueka.  Photo / NZME
People queue for vaccinations and booster shots at the Nelson center on Paru Paru Rd after nine new cases were found in nearby Motueka. Photo / NZME

Thirty-two contacts have been identified where one household member tested positive and 16 others returned a negative result.

Another Omicron case was at the Ara-Tai Cafe in Half Moon Bay in eastern Auckland, where 48 of the 78 identified contacts gave negative results.

Regarding the Palmerston North Omicron case, 66 of the 76 identified contacts have tested negative for the virus.

In total, 43 new cases of Covid community and 41 cases were discovered at the border yesterday.

The cases include 19 in Auckland, four in Waikato, six in the Lakes District Health Board region, six in Hawke’s Bay and eight in Nelson Marlborough.

Eight people are in hospital – including four in North Shore, three in Auckland and one in Middlemore – but none are in intensive care.

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