Whanganui iwi Tūpoho is opening the region's first Covid-19 saliva testing clinic today as part of a community approach it hopes will be picked up around the country.
The clinic will be run from a new Covid-19 care hub in central Whanganui which will offer clinical and wraparound services.
Tūpoho chair Ken Mair said the Inspire Manaaki Whānau Centre had been established to support whānau wellbeing during the pandemic through prevention, detection, and social support.
He said the iwi believed this was the first time a community had established an approach of this kind to deal with Covid. The centre aims to manage the impact of the virus in the community by increasing testing so that cases are found early and can be contained.
"Our community, iwi and hapū need to centralise and have a focused approach in regard to dealing with this pandemic," Mair said.
"The centre is a step toward meeting the needs of our community. We are creating a whānau-centred approach that is locally led and based on what our people are telling us on the ground.
"We think this is the template for the country as a whole. We look at rapid antigen tests, we look at the new saliva test that's much less invasive, and of course vaccination and, just as importantly, our whānau resilience. When whānau need support, we can take whānau packs, care packs, kai, those types of things."
Mair said providing saliva as a sample for Covid-19 testing is more comfortable and convenient than a nasopharyngeal or nasal swab. The Ministry of Health says regular saliva testing can aid early detection of the virus.
In the saliva test, people spit into a tube. The tubes will be flown to Auckland for laboratory analysis by saliva testing provider Rako Science. Results will be expected within 24 hours.
The new centre is a collaborative initiative led by Tūpoho Social Services in partnership with the Whanganui District Health Board, the Whanganui District Council, and the Ranga Tupua iwi collective.
"The DHB has been very supportive of Tūpoho in setting up this initiative and has helped with resourcing and advice to bring everything together to support our community. The mayor and deputy mayor have also given their support."
The Ranga Tupua iwi collective is backing the centre's welfare and information function as part of the rapid response operation to lift Māori vaccination numbers in Whanganui, South Taranaki, Rangitīkei, and the Waimarino.
Drive-through and mobile saliva testing at workplaces and outside of the city was also on the cards.
Mair said the launch of the saliva testing clinic and the centre is timely, given the imminent arrival of the Omicron variant in the community.
"It's coming. It could be in the next few days, it could be in the next few weeks. I don't think people will understand [what that means] until it really hits us. We need to be prepared. We need to make sure that we have the systems in place to support our whānau.
"This approach we've taken is based on exactly the types of values that have been left with us from our tūpuna in regard to Toitū te Whānau, supporting our whānau. Let's make sure we have, as much as possible, a system in place that will be supportive of our community and our iwi and hapū."
The challenge of Omicron will be the impact on health services, workplaces and businesses, Mair said.
"It's going to have a massive effect," Mair said. "Large workplaces – police, firefighters, industries – are losing hundreds of people because they're unvaccinated. You just can't continue to lose people from industries and business in the way that is presently happening."
He said a system could be developed for clearing unvaccinated people for work through regular testing.
"You'd know that every worker is either vaccinated or is being tested every three to five days, and if their tests are negative, they can go about their work in a normal manner.
"That's exactly the type of system we're trying to build so that everybody has an income and is able to support their families."
Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngārewa-Packer was in Whanganui on Monday to support preparations and meet the Manaaki Whānau team.
"It was a privilege supporting our Whanganui Tūpoho whānau to roll out their saliva testing," she said.
"I'm really heartened by the ingenuity and commitment our whānau take to keeping everyone safe."
The Inspire Manaaki Whānau Centre opens on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9am to 3pm for free, walk-in saliva testing. The centre is at the iwi-owned former Inspire gym premises in Wilson Street. Optimal results require that people do not eat, drink, smoke, vape or chew gum for one hour before being tested.