New Zealand to make masks and rapid antigen tests free as Omicron wave grows

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The Guardian

New Zealand will make medical masks and rapid antigen tests free to access, the government has announced, as the country fights a growing wave of Omicron infections.

The slate of new measures announced today include widening access to antiviral drugs to anyone over 75, making free medical masks available, and providing packs of free rapid antigen tests (RATs) even if people are not experiencing symptoms.

Previously, people had to have been exposed or symptomatic to be eligible for the tests. The expansion of access to antivirals means about 10% of the population will be eligible, compared to 2% previously. The free mask measures will cover N-95 or P2 masks for anyone considered clinically vulnerable, and standard medical masks for others.

Covid response minister Ayesha Verrall said these were “the most effective measures we have. They are simple, but if we all do them, we can lessen our illness burden and the burden on our health system.”

RATs and masks will be available from community providers, including marae, testing stations, local pharmacies and others.

The measures come as New Zealand reckons with a growing second wave of Omicron infections. On Thursday, New Zealand reported 11,382 cases, 23 deaths, and 765 people in hospital with Covid-19 – and a rising seven-day average of all three metrics.

The number of people in hospital is likely a particular concern for the government, as it comes amid an already-pressured winter season, with health systems struggling to cope with an influx of winter illnesses.

The director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said if the current trajectory continued unchecked, government modelling projected it would peak at about 1,200 hospitalisations a day. “You’ll all be aware of the pressure our hospitals, indeed our wider health system … are under,” he said. “If everyone does their bit, we will get through winter.”

Earlier in the week, 923 doctors in GP clinics and hospitals signed an open letter to the government saying the country was “at risk of a catastrophic collapse of the healthcare workforce”.

In a survey of doctors conducted by the New Zealand Women in Medicine Trust, almost all respondents said there was either definitely (93.5%) or probably (6.3%) a crisis in the health workforce.

The growing numbers of hospitalisations are partly a result of immunity waning from boosters, the spread of more infectious variants, and more infections among older cohorts, who are more likely to experience serious or life-threatening illness. The infection rates for those aged 70 and over are far higher now than they were in New Zealand’s first Omicron wave, in March.

With the latest round of measures, the government hopes to ease the spike in infections and hospitalisations, without bringing in harsher measures – such as school closures, vaccination requirements or limits on gatherings – for which there may be little political support.

July 14, 2022 at 09:21AM Tess McClure in Auckland

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