Coronavirus: Lockdown strategies helping New Zealand conquer influenza - expert

As New Zealand flattens the COVID-19 curve, there is another respiratory illness Aotearoa's lockdown measures have helped the country get ahead of, a virologist says.

For nearly five weeks, New Zealand was under the strict alert level 4 lockdown restrictions, requiring Kiwis to stay at their homes unless it was essential they head out. Non-essential businesses also had to stop operating.

The physical distancing achieved through the lockdown has been lauded by the Prime Minister and health officials as helping New Zealand flatten the COVID-19 curve and effectively halt community transmission of the illness.

Although there are concerns about the economic damage caused by the strict rules, limiting the spread of COVID-19 may not have been the only benefit of lockdown.

Lance Jennings, a University of Otago clinical associate professor and virologist, told The AM Show that New Zealand's measures also helped combat influenza.

"We are certainly ahead of the influenza curve at the present time with the lockdown strategies. All respiratory illnesses are occurring at a lower level," he said.

"Data from Australia currently suggests that influenza activity is running at about 5 to 10 percent of a five-year average, and I suspect in New Zealand we are running at very low influenza activity levels at the present time."

Jennings said things could change as we come out of lockdown, but continued physical distancing would help stop a spike in influenza.

"Respiratory viruses are largely transmitted via the respiratory route by small and large particle droplets so physical separation will reduce their spread and hand washing too," he said.

Getting a flu shot is still "so important" to stop influenza circulating, however.

According to a statement from Associate Minister of Health Julie Anne Genter, 587,000 influenza vaccines were administered during the first stage of the vaccination programme compared to 290,000 in the same period last year. She said we were on track to have one in three Kiwis vaccinated.

The vaccination campaign began early in New Zealand this year, recognising that health systems could become overloaded if they had to deal with both influenza and COVID-19 at the same time. High-risk patients have been prioritised, but now all Kiwis can access the jabs. 

Genter said FluTracker had recorded lower levels of flu-like illness this year compared to normal, which she also said indicated the success of lockdown and the early vaccine campaign.

There were worries at one stage, however, about the distribution of the vaccines. Some doctors Newshub spoke to said they had issues getting access to them. About 300,000 additional vaccines were ordered earlier this month on top of the 900,000 already sent out to GPs and pharmacies.

Asked for his opinion on New Zealand's response to COVID-19, Jennings said we've done well.

"We have effectively controlled this [COVID-19], we have responded, we had a pandemic plan, we've used it. Yes, you can always say we could have gone earlier and not had this problem at all. The second comment is we have had an amazing influenza vaccination season. We have got the vaccine out there eventually."

He said it was unlikely another deadly illness was circulating like COVID-19.

"I think the focus on COVID-19 in the present time and the clinical astuteness and the clinical surveillance that is going on with all our CBACs and sampling of people, I think it is extremely unlikely."

While New Zealand has only had 19 deaths so far from COVID-19 - fewer than the estimated number of influenza deaths which normally occur annually - other countries which haven't implemented such stringent restrictions as New Zealand quickly did have had tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths. 

According to the United States' Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between October 2019 and April 4, 2020, there were between 24,000 and 64,000 flu deaths in the US, while there have been more than 60,000 reported deaths from COVID-19 there since the start of February.

The CDC's director, Robert Redfield, has previously warned that COVID-19 may be even more brutal for the United States during the northern hemisphere winter because of a potentially high number of flu cases at the same time. Redfield said officials would be doing as much as possible to encourage people to get the flu shot.

The World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this week said southern hemisphere nations should be supported in managing influenza cases this coming winter.

"It's really important that we support countries in the Southern Hemisphere who do experience yearly influenza cycles, to ensure that they have the capacity to both manage and monitor both influenza and COVID-19 at the same time," WHO head of emergencies programmes Dr Mike Ryan said.

"I believe the lessons that are learned in the experience those countries will have with potentially both diseases circulating at the same time will not only benefit their countries but will greatly benefit countries in the Northern Hemisphere, who may face the same situation in six months."

Both the Prime Minister and the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield have encouraged people to continue to seek medical treatment and care from their GPs for illnesses other than COVID-19. Many GPs are running virtual consultations during the pandemic.