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As expected, we’ve moved into phase 2 – the next phase in the plan announced earlier by the Government as we crossed 1000 new Covid cases a day.
Phase 2 kicks us into the widespread use of rapid antigen tests (RATs). The Close Contact Exemption Scheme for businesses that will join the scheme allows workers identified as close contacts to continue working instead of isolating if they return a negative RAT.
This rule of using RATs to allow workers back to work is not as new as it seems. In the previous phase 1, the guidelines for critical health workers as per the Government’s own Ministry of Health website states that a Covid-19 Omicron case – when it is a critical health professional who is vaccinated and asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic – can get back to work after a negative RAT test on day five and then on day six.
In general, RATs are known to identify roughly around 80 per cent of people with the virus. This means a negative RAT result does not mean that the individual is not positive and contagious. Moreover, as it works best for a positive case when the viral load is at or around peak means a positive RAT result is a more reliable result than a negative RAT result.
Either way, whether it ends up giving a false positive or a false negative, it imposes a risk and cost.
Reducing the hardship for workplaces by not keeping staff waiting a couple of days for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – or nasal swab – result makes sense by using RATs to determine whether they could or not be at work. However, it shouldn’t apply for all sectors and it makes no sense especially for two sectors.
Mitigation of risk in one area should not lead to an increased risk in another. Pushing an issue downstream is not a solution and with the rapidly rising number of cases, the holes in the scheme need to be addressed.
Firstly, in the health sector. The Government has already made a different and relaxed guideline for the health sector compared to others. Anyone presenting themselves to a doctor, nurse, or surgeon or who is already in a hospital as a patient is vulnerable.
Despite being double-vaccinated and boosted, people are reported to catch Omicron. A patient in a healthcare environment does not want to be exposed to more health risks when they are there to remedy their existing health condition.
The second sector is our aged-care sector. Our aged population, just like the aged population around the world, is more vulnerable to all possible consequences when exposed to a positive case. Looking at the percentage of deaths in different age groups, it is well established the probability of suffering if infected is higher in people of older age groups.
Omicron has been reported to be milder but we also know that our current vaccination status is helping many combat the virus. Booster shots do provide significant protection against hospital admission and death but we don’t yet know how this boosted immunity will play out to continue to keep Omicron milder as time goes by.
By bringing in the role of RATs when the case numbers are over 1000, the Government will do an effective job of reducing the load on laboratories and reducing the costs of tests by limiting the number of PCR tests. Additionally, it will help businesses make their own assessments of risk versus benefits but it would be a very irresponsible move not to exclude two sectors – the healthcare and the aged-care sectors – from a pure reliance on RATs for close contacts as it will be once the Close Contact Exemption Scheme kicks in.
These measures to reduce costs and cover up staff strains in healthcare and in the aged-care sectors later will create a huge risk for the most vulnerable that the Government is completely ignoring.
The Government still has time to fix this by ensuring a close contact working in these sectors should be able to return to work only after a negative PCR test, a result they should receive within 24 hours, and not just a negative RAT.
In that way, we protect our most important workers in the fight against Covid-19 and the most vulnerable.
• Former National MP and former Families Commissioner, Dr Parmjeet Parmar has a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Auckland.
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