Covid-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall says the country is facing increasing cases and with the BA.5 strain another surge, but tweaks to the orange setting were the focus ahead of any move to the red setting.
Case numbers tipped back over the 10,000 mark today after 9,600 were recorded yesterday.
Asked about the issue at the Health Select Committee today, Verrall said the current focus was on the measures in the orange settings rather than moving to the more restrictive red level.
"We are facing increasing cases at the moment and we see that we are likely to have that BA.5 come and give us another surge of cases, as we have previously experienced. At the moment, we don't see anything that is changing us away from the current orange setting."
BA.5 is a sub-variant of Omicron and was first detected in New Zealand along with other sub-variants BA.2.12.1 and BA.4 in April.
Verrall said the most effective prevention methods were masks and vaccines, both of which were in use at orange.
"We constantly review what we are doing, but if I had a crystal ball in terms of putting statistical numbers on each of these probabilities that would be very difficult. But I want to make it very clear that our emphasis is on the sorts of measures we currently have in place at orange and looking comprehensively at whether they can be improved."
A week ago, Verrall decided to stay at the orange setting as case numbers started to creep up, saying cases and hospitalisations were still much lower than at the peak of Omicron earlier in the year.
However, she said additional measures were needed to help reduce spread, partly because of the pressure on hospitals from other illnesses, such as the flu.
These included providing suitable masks to school students and teachers, and extending free flu vaccines to children aged 3–12 years. She also reduced the period within which people had to test again if they got symptoms after recovering from a Covid-19 infection – from three months to 29 days.
The last time the daily community cases were above 10,000 was on April 21.
Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank told the Herald the increase is worrying.
"It's clear now that cases are trending upwards and we're at the start of a second wave and that is concerning."
He says case ages are also trending upwards, which puts even more pressure on the already stretched health system.
"These age groups have a lot more people that haven't had it before so there are high rates of susceptibility."
Plank says he expects death rates will climb as the virus affects older people.
In terms of restrictions, he told the Herald he understood they would be controversial at this stage of the pandemic.
"I think now is a good time for people to be wearing masks and reminding ourselves of the risk that's out there, and remembering the simple actions we can take – testing, and staying home if you're sick."
He added Covid-19 is not the only concern, with influenza also sweeping across Aotearoa.
"If you test negative on a RAT but you have respiratory symptoms – chances are you have the flu and no one wants to be spreading that either as that's a big part of the burden on the hospitals."
The Ministry of Health today reported a further 12 Covid-related deaths.
Of the 12 deaths, two people were from Auckland, one was from Waikato, three were from Bay of Plenty, one was from Hawke's Bay, one was from Taranaki, two were from Wellington region and two were from Southern.
One was aged in their 60s, three were in their 70s, five were in their 80s, and three were aged over 90. Of these people, six were women and six were men, the ministry said.
The total of deaths linked to the virus now stands at 1604.
The ministry said the total number of deaths was understated by a count of one on both July 4 and July 5.
"This was due to a coding error, which has now been fixed."
There are 522 people in hospital with the virus, including 10 in intensive care.
Today's 522 patients in hospital are being treated at Northland 15; Waitematā: 108; Counties Manukau: 29; Auckland: 55; Waikato: 53; Bay of Plenty: 31; Lakes: 12; Hawke's Bay: 19; MidCentral: 13; Whanganui: 6; Taranaki: 12; Tairawhiti: 2; Wairarapa: 5; Capital and Coast and Hutt Valley: 48; Nelson Marlborough: 11; Canterbury and West Coast: 60; South Canterbury: 12; Southern: 31.
The average age of people hospitalised with Covid is 65.
There are 233 cases who have recently arrived from overseas.
'Significant increase' in Covid, flu cases
There are currently 53,110 active Covid cases in this country.
Health officials say the past fortnight has seen a "significant increase" in Covid cases - on top of a rise in seasonal colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses.
"Wearing a mask remains one of our best measures to reduce transmission against infectious respiratory illnesses, including Covid-19," the ministry said.
"Masking up is particularly important when you are going to be around our more vulnerable members of the community, such as in healthcare settings and in aged residential care.
"The more layers of protection we put in place around the vulnerable, such as mask-wearing, having our vaccinations, and staying away from them when sick, the less risk there is of them getting seriously ill."
The public was urged to continue wearing masks on public transport, in retail stores and supermarkets, and in poorly ventilated spaces, or when it was hard to distance from other people physically.
PM: 'No expectation' of a return to red
Yesterday Aotearoa recorded 9629 new community cases - up by more than 3000 from the day prior. The Ministry of Health reported a further 24 Covid-related deaths. There are 493 people in hospital with the virus, including 11 in intensive care.
The moving seven-day average of Covid-19 cases was also up by 1917 and the Omicron subvariant BA.2.75 had been detected in New Zealand for the first time.
"We do know BA.2.75 has some characteristics that look like they may enhance its ability to evade immunity, similar to the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, and there is some early evidence overseas that it may be slightly more transmissible than BA.2," the ministry said yesterday.
"There is no current evidence that it leads to more severe disease, although assessing the evidence is at a very early stage."
The jump in cases prompted experts to say a return to the red Covid setting shouldn't be ruled out.
But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had "no expectation" the country will return to red traffic light restrictions.
"We've recently done a review and decided to stay in the settings we have. But keep in mind we have really important rules at the orange setting that are important to protect us," Ardern said yesterday.
She also cast doubt over whether the harsher gathering limits enforced under the red setting would make a marked difference to case numbers.
"There is a real question mark over that, particularly as we are seeing those rates in some of our older New Zealanders. We know the biggest thing we can do to make a difference right now is mask use and vaccines, so that's what we are going to do," she said.
Last week, Covid-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall said a move from orange to red wasn't necessary.
"We can continue to manage the virus at orange, but are putting in place a range of additional measures to help manage a recent rise in cases," Verrall said.
She urged people to keep up to date with their vaccinations.
"We are seeing an overrepresentation of unvaccinated people in hospital admissions so we strongly urge everyone to make sure they are up to date with their vaccines."
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker told the Herald that New Zealand has not yet learned from other countries handling their outbreaks well.
He says places like Japan and Singapore have an advantage, being mask-wearing societies that stay home when they are sick.
"Those are lessons we have not absorbed at all."
University of Auckland senior lecturer in computational evolution Dr David Welch said the Government must be considering the possibility of moving the country to the red traffic light.
"Our hospitals are already really, really full. Not only because of Covid but also because of other winter illnesses. We expect these cases to continue to rise and there'll be just more pressure on the health system.
"I certainly won't rule out going back into red within the next few weeks, but then again I'm not sure if it is politically feasible and whether people will listen this time."