Hospitals are setting up tents and clearing wards to prepare for an expected influx of Covid-19 patients.

Some hospitals have opted to use tents to triage people who might have the new coronavirus, the Herald on Sunday understands - keeping potential carriers well away from other staff and patients.

New Zealanders will be used to seeing such measures used after disasters overseas, and their use here underlines the health emergency the country and world faces.

GP clinics are giving flu jabs in carparks, and photos emerged last week of hundreds of campervans lined up at sites in Auckland and Christchurch, ready for returning travellers to use for self-isolation.

Advertisement

Large numbers of elective (non-urgent) surgeries and procedures are also being postponed or sent to private hospitals to free up space and resources.

It's understood much of the elective surgery centre at North Shore Hospital, a stand-alone building, will be used to treat coronavirus patients.

Waitematā DHB referred questions to the Ministry of Health. A spokeswoman said it was in close talks with the country's 20 DHBs about a "whole of system" response, including how to use hospitals and facilities.

"We understand the three Auckland DHBs are looking at options to care for Covid-19 patients safely while also providing essential services."

Health Minister David Clark has confirmed hospitals might be mostly dedicated to coronavirus treatment, should the situation demand it.

"Some countries facing more cases of Covid-19 are dedicating some hospitals to treating the disease, and keeping others clear for other medical care," he said. "That approach could be used here as well, but no decisions have been taken at this stage.

"A huge amount of planning is going on across the health system for a range of possible scenarios."

Stopping Covid-19 from spreading within a hospital is essential to protect other patients and staff. If the latter fall sick then workforce shortages and burnout can quickly become a crisis.

Advertisement

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

Some DHBs have also ordered urgent building work to construct more negative pressure facilities, which use lower air pressure to stop internal air from reaching the rest of the hospital, allowing patients with infectious conditions to be isolated.

Huge efforts are also underway to treble the number of ICU beds in the public system, with staff preparing to work unfamiliar roles in intensive care. Anaesthetic staff could be deployed as hospital "resuscitationists" on intubation teams, working under the supervision of intensive care specialists.

Some have chosen to live away from their families for the foreseeable future to limit the threat of transmission, and Auckland DHB and others are looking at providing accommodation.

The Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society has pleaded with Kiwis to respect the level 4 restrictions, to avoid a rapid increase in those numbers and people who will need hospital-level care. The public system's intensive care units already run at about 80-90 per cent capacity, without Covid-19 cases.

More than 2500 doctors, nurses, midwives and scientists have come out of retirement or quit parental leave to join the fight against the new coronavirus, and the Ministry of Health has asked more to come forward.

New Zealand has had 451 confirmed Covid-19 cases. Twelve people are in hospital, including two in intensive care.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has marked April 6 as the first day when there could be signs that the unprecedented level 4 restrictions have helped break chains of Covid-19 transmission. By then there could be about 4000-5000 confirmed cases.

"Don't be disheartened when you continue to see our numbers increase," she said yesterday. "I expect that we will have a number of cases and those cases will grow steeply because of the lag of Covid-19."

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker has said the critical number is not overall cases, but how many people are infected by community transmission of the virus. So far, most confirmed cases are still linked to overseas travel.

The mortality rate was about 1 per cent, Baker said, but there were many factors including how overwhelmed the health system is.

Yesterday, All of Government Controller John Ombler told media that authorities were pleased with how most Kiwis were behaving during the lockdown - with a few exceptions.

"I've heard today that some people were playing touch rugby and frisbee in parks, that's just stupid," he warned. "Please don't do it - don't be stupid."