Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: The heartland Kiwi town where 22 per cent have tested positive

Omicron’s spread through Ruatoria has been rapid – with 22 per cent of the town’s population testing positive in the space of just three weeks.

Late last year local iwi leadership – fearing what could happen if Covid-19 spread through the East Coast given the very limited health resources available in the isolated province – urged people not to visit over the summer months.

Some of those fears around rapid spread have now been realised, with 172 people in the town of Ruatoria – which has a population of 759 – testing positive to Omicron since the first case of the variant was recorded there in late February.

Te Runanganui o Ngāti Porou chair Selwyn Parata said while the rising case numbers were naturally concerning, local iwi and hapu were being pro-active to do all they could to protect the region’s population.

But he stressed individuals also had a big role in protecting the vulnerable, including getting tested if they felt unwell and undertaking isolation if they were confirmed with Covid-19.

There are no specialist hospital facilities on the East Coast to care for seriously ill Covid-19 patients. The closest hospital is in Gisborne, almost a two-hour drive from Ruatoria.

“It is scary. But we will get over it, we will get over it together,” he told the New Zealand Herald.

“We won’t get over it one by one . . . everyone is going to have to pull their weight. We have to work together . . . don’t think of ‘myself’, but think of our family, our neighbours.

“Our hapūs are working very well with our communities. There is a lot of Covid in the small community, but people are relatively disciplined.”

As of Wednesday night, there were 72 current cases in Ruatoria (including 24 reported yesterday), plus 100 cases that are now deemed as recovered.

There were also around a further 30 current cases in the nearby Waiapu area – which includes the small town of Tikitiki.

The Omicron variant had not been detected on the East Coast before the last week of February.

Parata issued an impassioned plea late last year for those considering travelling to the region – including those who were from the East Coast but now lived elsewhere – to delay their plans.

In the open letter, the proud Ngāti Porou leader wrote how “our region’s health services struggle to service our people as it is now”.

He said it was “not an exaggeration to say that health services will be overwhelmed when Covid-19 arrives in our region”.

“Ngāti Porou people will be at the worst end of that struggle; some of us will become seriously ill and some of us may die,” he wrote.

“The reality is that our region, and our people, have some of the worst health, wellbeing, and social statistics in Aotearoa. We also have one of the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rates across all of Aotearoa’s DHBs.

“Many people are working long hours, doing the best they can, to turn around those statistics, but it will take time to reverse a situation caused by deep-seated and long-standing inequities.”

For those who had to return to the East Coast, Parata urged them in the letter to be fully vaccinated and also return a negative test for Covid-19 before travelling.

Now that Covid-19 was in the region, he told the Herald his message to locals was “to be careful”.

A big vaccination drive throughout the region was ongoing. That has included events at Ruatoria’s Whakarua Park – home to the Ngāti Porou East Coast rugby side – as well as mobile vaccination events at more isolated locations and drive-thru collection points for Rapid Antigen Test packs.

Just over 90 per cent had received their first dose, and about 87 per cent had received a second dose.

But booster shots were at only about 64 per cent.

“Our boosters are not as high as we would want to, but we are working on that,” Parata said.

There was also a “big drive” for vaccinations to the 5-11 age group.

“Our health services, Ngāti Porou Hauora and Turanga Health have been working overtime,” Parata said of the local effort. “They have been as good as any other health service.”

That includes the creation of a toll-free phone line where locals can seek assistance, support or report any other issues related to Covid-19.

The number was created due to the long waits that some callers to the Ministry of Health’s 0800 Healthline are faced with.

Local health providers have also created various isolation facilities throughout the East Coast for people needing to isolate, but can’t do it from their homes.

“We have some places for them to go to, in some of our kohanga that aren’t being used,” Parata said. “We have changed those over to places where people in need of isolation, they can go there.”

Other essentials such as food packs to those isolating were also being provided by hapū-led organisations.

In a bid to raise awareness about Covid-19, and the risk it poses to the region, the local response teams have also been producing videos for their social media channels featuring locals talking about their battles with the virus.

One includes former Ngāti Porou East Coast rugby captain Tripoli Poi who was among some of the initial cases detected in Tikitiki (population 206).

“We have used all our people [where we can],” Parata said.

“There are different messages for different groups. We have ploughed through all those up the coast and in Gisborne too.”

Parata said as far as he knew, no one from the East Coast had needed to be transferred for hospital-level treatment in Gisborne yet.

He hoped that would remain the case.

“Our message is cherish and look after our young people, protect our marae, our homes and our communities . . . protect one another,” Parata said.

“Those are our messages . . . everybody be alert, be prepared and have consideration for each other.

“[And] stay home . . . it does highlight that message because if you don’t move, then it [Covid-19] can’t move.”

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