Omicron cases in Auckland may have peaked, but more will be known in a couple of days, epidemiologist Michael Baker says.
He was "cautiously optimistic" Omicron cases could be falling in our largest city, ground zero for New Zealand community transmission of the latest Covid-19 variant to sweep the world, but warned it would still be "many, many weeks" before measures preventing virus transmission should be relaxed.
There were 9789 new cases of Covid-19 in Auckland today, among 18,833 nationwide - a decrease from recent daily cases of 20,000-plus, but above the seven-day rolling average of 16,687. Seven new cases were detected at the border.
Five deaths - all Aucklanders aged between their 60s and 80s - were also reported, taking New Zealand's Covid-19 death toll to 68.
Auckland's daily cases hovered around 13,000 between Wednesday and Friday, before today's 4000 drop put the daily case count back to numbers seen a week earlier, Baker, a University of Otago professor of public health, said.
"It looks like in Auckland things have plateaued, and may be dipping down, but we need several days to see if that trend is confirmed … if it's continuing by Tuesday it'd be a fairly reasonable view to say numbers have peaked in Auckland."
Auckland numbers mattered because its outbreak was one to three weeks ahead of other cities and regions, Baker said.
"If Auckland does confirm it's peaking, that'll be the first time we've seen what Omicron will do in New Zealand in a big population. And [if confirmed will show] they stayed at that peak only four or five days.
"We could assume the rest of the country was going to see steep, abrupt peaks like that, but they're just going to be spread out over the next two to three weeks."
Case numbers elsewhere would be easier to follow now rapid antigen tests (RATs) had been available to the general public for about 10 days.
People who are symptomatic or a household contact can order RATs through the newly launched RAT requester site - requestrats.covid19.health.nz. Eight million RATs were expected to arrive in the country this weekend, and 99 million are confirmed for delivery this month.
Some health experts have warned people might not be self-reporting positive RAT results, causing case numbers to drop, the Ministry of Health said yesterday.
Positive and negative RAT results should be reported through My Covid Record - mycovidrecord.health.nz - so health officials can understand the size and trends of the outbreak.
But Baker isn't convinced today's dip is a false flag.
"I still think it looks very likely case numbers have dropped in Auckland, because it's a big drop, and because we've established now a pattern of testing ... that should make diagnosis easier and faster for people."
The next numbers to keep an eye on were hospitalisations, as they were a "fairly stable" indicator of how an outbreak was going.
Almost 600 people with Covid-19 were in hospital yesterday, 10 in intensive care and with an average age of 52. Nationwide, there are almost 168,000 active cases of Covid-19 in the community.
The lag between infection and possible hospitalisation was about 10 days, Baker said.
"It'd also be quite reassuring if we saw the numbers coming into hospitals in Auckland start to dip 10 days after the peak of cases.
"You could be pretty certain [then] that Auckland had turned the corner."
Based on New South Wales and Victoria, New Zealand hospitalisations might peak at a "manageable" 1100 a day, Baker said.
Current Covid-19 ICU admissions were about 10 a day, also manageable, he said.
New Zealand was fortunate to have high vaccination. More than 100 people are dying of Covid-19 a day in Hong Kong, which also initially pursued an elimination strategy for the earlier variants of the virus, which has killed almost six million globally since January 2020, but had a lower vaccination rate in older age groups than New Zealand.
"It's quite grim, and it's overwhelming their hospital system … [but in New Zealand] there's some cause for optimism from what we're seeing at the moment."
More than 95 per cent of Kiwis aged over 12 have received at least two vaccination doses, with 72 per cent of those eligible boosted. Almost 88 per cent of Māori aged over 12 are double-dosed and 60.2 per cent of those eligible boosted.
Almost 52 per cent of 5 to 11-year-olds have had at least one dose, falling to 32 per cent for Māori.
However, the health expert cautioned precautions to blunt transmission must continue - limiting interactions if older or medically vulnerable, isolating and testing if symptomatic, wearing a good mask, and getting vaccinated and boosted.
"It benefits you, your family, the hospital system and all of us. We're very much all in it together, and I think most New Zealanders understand that.
"It's still many, many weeks before we can relax the things we're doing [to prevent transmission] … we won't return to some new state where we have no circulating virus, we're going to dip down to where it will be continuing to circulate at a certain endemic level, and after that it's very uncertain what will happen."
Meanwhile, the Department of Conservation today closed Catchpool campsite at Remutaka Forest Park after about 70 anti-mandate and anti-vaccination protesters arrived Thursday night.
They were liaising with police and community leaders, with the camp 34km east of Wellington temporarily closed as a "public safety precaution", a department spokeswoman said.
The group - included some in vehicles with anti-vaccine messaging on them - had so far been well-behaved and paid campsite fees, she said.