More than 150 doctors and scientists are backing a fresh plea to keep a classroom mask mandate in place over winter, as part of a tougher Covid-19 strategy just put to the Government.
One of the doctors behind today's appeal said his colleagues were worried that, with the colder season approaching, New Zealand didn't have a clear plan to curb the coronavirus and protect Kiwis from long-term illness.
Wellington urgent care physician Dr Kelvin Ward argued the country couldn't rely on high levels of vaccination for protection against the virus – and more measures were needed.
With the Government recently loosening some restrictions in tweaking the traffic light system and moving the entire country to orange, he and others were concerned Kiwis stood vulnerable to a second wave.
"We're particularly concerned about schools going back – especially with a lack of a mask policy in schools."
Well-known experts who've put their weight behind the appeal include Otago University's Professor Michael Baker and Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, and the University of Auckland's Dr Anna Brooks, Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, Professor Rod Jackson, Dr David Welch and Dr Joel Rindelaub.
A key part of their proposed strategy, titled "Vaccines Plus", was to make masks in schools compulsory over winter, rather than only encouraged as under the orange setting.
"A large number of children – in the order of more than 200,000 – have contracted Covid over the last two or three months," Ward said.
"It's true that a lot of kids will have mild infection – but we're still learning about the potential for long-term effects, and just withdrawing protections is a bit cavalier."
At times the virus was spreading heavily, the experts wanted to see alternative school learning made available for children. As well, they called for CO2 monitoring and air filtration units to all classrooms, along with higher vaccination coverage for children.
While the Government has moved to supply 5000 air purifiers to schools, many of those were yet to arrive – and fewer than a tenth of schools had adequate ventilation systems in place.
The Ministry of Education however told the Herald "most spaces" within schools were naturally well-ventilated.
"Ahead of term two, we are strengthening our published guidance for schools on how they can keep their classrooms comfortable and well-ventilated in cold or rainy weather," associate deputy secretary, property delivery, Sam Fowler said.
"Natural ventilation performs better in colder weather, which means schools can open windows to a lesser degree when it's cold outside and achieve the same or better ventilation than fully opening windows and doors when it's warm outside."
The ministry had advised schools they could keep using heat pumps and other heating systems to keep classrooms comfortable if they needed to, and had also dispatched more than 2,500 CO2 monitors.
Outside schools, the experts urged the Government to update ventilation guidelines for all public indoor spaces, educate the public about airborne transmission and help supply N-95 masks.
Masks also aren't currently required in hospitality venues, but are still enforced at some gatherings and events, close-proximity businesses such as hairdressers and retail stores.
Yesterday, when another 9830 cases were reported, the Government announced people with genuine reasons for not being able to wear masks would be able to apply for exemption cards from next month.
More broadly, the experts argued for an entirely stronger strategy to tackle spread.
"When we were in elimination, the goal was to eliminate the virus - now it's unclear what the goal is," Ward said.
"If a goal of reducing infections is set and communicated, then we need good public health measures, as well as vaccination."
Brooks, an immunologist and Long Covid researcher, said allowing high levels of infection would lead to a "significant" health and economic burden.
"Already we are seeing serious health complications from the Omicron wave despite our high levels of vaccination," she said.
"Vaccinations are critical to prevent severe illness and hospitalisation, however recent data suggests that vaccination has only a minimal impact on reducing the long-term impacts from Long Covid."
Baker said that while Omicron was tougher to contain, "that doesn't mean we shouldn't use all of the tools to have to mitigate it tightly and keep case numbers down".
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said the country's Covid-19 response would be adapted as the pandemic evolved, with the next review of traffic light settings due next month.
"Our ongoing management of the response is important for ensuring we protect vulnerable populations, encourage vaccination and promote messages and public health measures that allow people to protect themselves and their loved ones."
On masks, the ministry continued to recommend people find masks that best fitted and covered the nose, mouth, and chin without gaps above, below or on the sides.
Earlier this month, Baker and Kvalsvig argued it was time to replace what they called a "highly inefficient" Covid-19 traffic light system with a smarter, lasting regime the country could use to tackle all viruses.
They proposed an overhauled and more nuanced alert level system, including mechanisms to step up social support when needed.
In March, the Government moved to simplify the existing system by ending most vaccine mandates and scanning requirements, along with removing outdoor capacity limits and mask rules, while doubling capacity limits at indoor venues like bars and restaurants at red.
Beyond that, there weren't any immediate plans to make further changes, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said this month.