GPs are the key at mitigating "nasty consequences" for the region, says the president of Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners Dr Samantha Murton, as Northland is preparing for potentially 200 coronavirus patients in the coming three months.

With five confirmed cases in Zealand and a Northland patient currently being tested, healthcare providers, schools and event planners signal they are preparing for a Northland-wide outbreak – however, concerns remain at this stage.

"We have had a workforce shortage [in the health sector] for a while, and Northland is no exception in this," Murton said.

"We also have groups that are particularly vulnerable, and that includes our Māori and Pacific population, as well as diabetes patients. When you have a workforce shortage, plus a lot of vulnerable people that is a double whammy."

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Murton said having talked to GPs across the country, most practices wanted to ensure they have enough equipment and that "they are prepared for everything that comes through their doors".

A major concern was the health and safety of the staff.

"The most important message for patients is, ring before you come into the practice. This way, practices can ensure that they can look after everyone in a safe way."

She said it was important for as many practices to stay as possible throughout the outbreak.

For that to happen, doctors needed to know if they are treating a potential Covid-19 patient.

Aged care facilities share similar concerns, saying losing staff to illness or isolation would be extremely problematic.

As at December 2019, there were 1062 Northlanders in aged residential care.

The Northland District Health Board indicated on Monday's board meeting that care facilities would soon be contacted, however, the New Zealand Aged Care Association criticised the lack of responsiveness from government and DHBs urging for a co-ordinated response.

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"We are well-prepared to deal with outbreaks of the flu or norovirus, and we have a pandemic plan in place. But with Covid-19, we are reaching into the unknown," Hilary Sumpter, chief executive of Kerikeri Retirement Village, said.

She said the scariest prospect of what they were facing, is what happens if they lost a significant number of staff.

"A lot of our residents require two people to assist them in their daily living."

Sumpter said the facility had an extensive isolation plan in place; however, they weren't informed as to whether there would be enough equipment available in case the infection spread inside the retirement village.

The NDHB is currently bringing guidelines under way to assist age care facilities, including measures that will help prevent infection from being introduced into the facility and how to plan to maintain business continuity.

"Northland DHB is currently completing a PPE [personal protective equipment] stocktake with Northland age care facilities to ensure they have a satisfactory stock level on hand," Neil Beney, NDHB's general manager directorate of medical and elder services, said.

"We want to reassure all age care providers that our Health of Older People portfolio manager will be contacting them all to understand their concerns and where possible, we will incorporate these into our planning.

"Age care facilities will enact their business continuity plan if staffing becomes stretched."

Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners president Dr Samantha Murton. Photo / Supplied
Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners president Dr Samantha Murton. Photo / Supplied

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While aged care providers still worry about an outbreak, schools say they were prepared to cope with the potential spread of Covid-19 in Northland.

Pat Newman, Te Tai Tokerau Principals Association president and Horahora School principal, said schools were working under the best advice they could get while carrying on with life and educating children.

"We've had the odd parent who were wondering if they should keep their child at home until the outbreak is over. I pointed out that might mean home-schooling for up to six months," Newman said.

He said misinformation had supported an unreasonable level of fear in the community and instead of panic-buying, he appealed to deal with the facts at hand.

At their board meeting on Monday, Catherine Jackson, a Northland medical officer of health, told the NDHB any school closures in the wake of coronavirus did not need to be long term.

"Schools staying open is very important. The risk of children getting and transmitting [coronavirus] is so low that the chances of a whole school having to go into quarantine is pretty low."

So far, Jackson said, there were many calls coming in from Northlanders worried they had coronavirus, but none had met the definition of having the virus.

Northland GPs are asking people who feel unwell to call before entering a practice to ensure everyone's safety. Photo / John Stone
Northland GPs are asking people who feel unwell to call before entering a practice to ensure everyone's safety. Photo / John Stone

She said coronavirus would be no more than a mild illness for most Northlanders, and 80 per cent of those affected would be able to deal with it at home.

Jackson said the virus was not easily transmittable as it didn't spread through the air, unlike the much more highly infectious measles.

A person had to be in close contact with someone who was infected to get coronavirus themselves.

Jackson stressed the importance of handwashing – thoroughly and for 20 seconds, followed by drying the hands.

Northlanders should also work on not touching their faces with their hands and also refrain from shaking hands with others.

Constantly touching the face with the hands helps spread the virus from infected surfaces to eyes, noses and mouths.

According to Jackson, the average person touched their face 20 times an hour.
Other messaging from Jackson included avoiding large gatherings.

With this year's Whangārei Fritter Festival on 28 March approaching, Whangārei District Council has appointed a team to closely monitor advice provided by the Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation.

"With respect to public events and mass gatherings, at this stage the Ministry of Health does not recommend altering arrangements for public events," Carina de Graaf, WDC's venues and events manager said.

De Graaf said council would be asking people who feel unwell or have been in mainland China, Iran, northern Italy or the Republic of Korea in the past 14 days not to attend the festival.

De Graaf's team will ensure there will be enough supply of soap, water, hand sanitiser and papers towels at the Fritter Festival and would remind food vendors to be extra vigilant with hand hygiene and cleaning surfaces.