Fighting COVID-19 requires 'more effort, not less effort' – Michael Baker

Michael Baker.

Michael Baker.
picture: supply

A leading epidemiologist says Health New Zealand's plan to take a “business as usual approach” to Covid-19 is potentially risky given the resurgence of the virus.

Starting Monday, people aged 14 and over will have to pay for COVID-related doctor visits.

Te Whatu Ora said this was part of a “business as usual” approach to funding COVID-19 services, which would come into effect from 1 July.

Dr. Martin Hayford, the health authority's director of Living Well, said the plan is to manage COVID-19 “in a similar way to other communicable diseases.”

He said some funded services would “remain available throughout the winter to help prevent and manage Covid-19, particularly for those most at risk”.

These include free vaccinations and access to antivirals for those who are eligible. In early June, Health Minister Shane Reti extended the deadline for free rapid antigen tests (RATs) by three months to 30 September.

Children age 13 and under can still visit their doctor for free during business hours, including appointments for COVID-19.

Asked about a “business as usual” approach, University of Otago professor Dr Michael Baker said COVID-19 was different to other diseases.

“Unfortunately the COVID-19 virus is not progressing in the normal way. It is still transmitting at high levels in New Zealand, it is causing waves of infection and we are coming out of our sixth major wave in about 30 months.”

He said at the peak of the sixth wave in late May/early June, more than 55 people were hospitalised per day.

“It's decreased a little bit now, but we're still seeing five people dying every day from this infection, as well as hundreds of people getting infected with long Covid every day in New Zealand.”

Baker said COVID-19 remains the deadliest infectious disease alive today and it's “very positive” that free vaccines, antiviral drugs and testing are on the way.

“These are really important tools. But obviously we need to adjust our response in proportion to the scale of the risk. I think at the moment, given the way the virus is behaving, we should be putting more effort into managing it rather than less.”

Baker said it's important to take a “really strong integrated approach” to all respiratory infections.

“This not only allows people to receive the care they need, it also protects those around them.

“infectious disease [are] Really different from other health problems, because they are obviously contagious, they are infectious. So the actions of individuals affect us all and so we should not put any barriers in place to people going and getting the best possible care they can.

“It has to start with prevention, which includes vaccinations, and taking precautions when you’re sick, isolating yourself, and that means having good access to primary care.”

Baker said many people are currently going to the hospital due to respiratory infections, as happens every winter.

“But in addition to that, we’re also seeing rising waves of COVID-19, which is leading to a lot of people being hospitalized.

“This is a huge problem and we need a proportionate response. It's time we took an integrated approach to all respiratory infections.”

“We have to do better, because this is having a huge impact on the health, well-being and productivity of our workforce, so it will have huge economic consequences.”

Baker said he hoped government support for COVID-19 services would continue in the long term.

He said it was important to remember that tackling the virus was a “partnership” between the government, health providers and the public.

“We’re all in this together and we have to work together.”

* This story was amended on June 30 to say this was the sixth wave in 30 months, not 18, as originally stated.

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