Recent headlines calling for a health workforce emergency to be declared and statements saying doctors won't be able to help everyone when Omicron hits should be setting off alarm bells.
Not because of the headlines themselves, but for the unnecessary fear they are spreading among the public.
I am concerned about this scaremongering and messaging that is circulating around about Covid-19. Yes, it is here and there is uncertainty, yes numbers are rising and, yes, we do need to manage the vulnerable and at-risk people in our community, because while New Zealand has an overall fully vaccinated population rate of 94 per cent, the rate for fully vaccinated Māori is sitting at 86 per cent.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have worked to eliminate Covid-19 and keep community transmission as low as possible. Now into the third year of the pandemic, we need to show that we can still manage what's going on with Covid, but we also need to mentally prepare for a shift towards living with, instead of fighting Covid-19, and focus on other health issues and illnesses that are waiting in the wings.
The concern I see as we move towards the winter months is Influenza. Because we have not been as exposed to it due to lockdowns and border closures, there is the potential for its impact to be worse than in previous years.
In addition, our childhood immunisation rates are falling for the youngest members of our communities. Immunisation coverage for children at six months of age is sitting at 74 per cent. This is alarming and means we could see the re-emergence of whooping cough and, potentially, measles.
While figures vary from year to year, it is thought that there are several hundred deaths a year in New Zealand caused by the flu, mainly in the elderly and those who have other underlying health issues. Not a winter goes by without hospitals filling up and going into code black, general practice being at capacity, and people being away from work.
The best way to protect ourselves and our whānau against the flu, whooping cough, measles, and Covid-19 is through vaccination. I was pleased to see the timeframe for getting a booster down to three months, which will benefit those who waited longer to be vaccinated.
We have a very lean health system. Our general practices and hospitals work at close to capacity and it doesn't take much to get us there. With the seasonal flu outbreaks spanning over the winter months, the health sector can plan for higher rates of patients and more hospital admissions and there is usually a fairly defined start and end date. But as we have learned, Covid-19 is not seasonal.
Hopefully, the pandemic will come to an end in the next six to 12 months. That's not to say Covid-19 will disappear – it won't. However, we will learn to live with it in the same way we do with colds and flu.
For most of us, Covid-19 will be no more dangerous than the common cold or flu, but it is potentially more infectious. Walk past someone who has it and you may contract it. We are starting to see this with the increase in daily case numbers.
Most people will manage Covid-19 at home like they would with the flu. For those who are elderly, isolated, have co-morbidities or live in areas of high deprivation we know this can be difficult and it is crucial that the necessary support is in place and that the appropriate medical care is available if it is required.
Over time we will all have to adapt. Covid-19 will become endemic around the world and how we deal with flu outbreaks and how we deal with Covid-19 outbreaks will look quite similar: staying home, using over-the-counter pain relief such as paracetamol, keeping hydrated and resting will be the norm, as is having the reassurance that medical care will always be available.
The lessons we have learned about how our health system can cope will become increasingly important. We already know the sector is stretched and fatigued.
So, let's keep calm, keep healthy, and more importantly, get vaccinated and boosted. In the end, we will get there and back to our "new normal".
• Dr Bryan Betty is medical director at The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners.