Coronavirus: Health staff were 'at risk of burnout' during February COVID-19 outbreak despite peak of just 15 active cases

A Newshub investigation has found persisting issues with our contact tracing capacity, with staff during the so-called Valentine's Day cluster at risk of burnout despite dealing with just a handful of cases.

Emergency planning documents from the February outbreak have been obtained, which show concerns were flagged about "limited resources" almost immediately. 

At the peak of the outbreak, with just 15 active community cases and 160 people to follow up within a day, the majority of staff were not working sustainable or appropriate hours. 

It's raised concerns with how we'd cope with a significant outbreak - like what Taiwan is currently experiencing, with 700 local cases over the past week.

Remember the LSG Sky Chefs worker? She and her family testing positive marked the beginning of the Valentine's Day cluster. It wasn't a big outbreak, but those tracking it struggled.

Just three days into the outbreak, as emergency teams shifted to "surge level orange", the Auckland DHB noted there were "limited resources due to vaccination and testing requirements".

"What we're seeing is modest if not mediocre performance in an orange outbreak, which is exhausting the workforce," Auckland University Professor of Medicine Des Gorman told Newshub.

"So I think there's a discrepancy between what we see and what we're being told. My recommendation is always believe what you're seeing."

Official information obtained by Newshub shows by February 19, the extra workload on Auckland Regional Public Health staff left them at "risk of burnout".

By February 23, it was noted "we cannot source staff needed for the weekend" and on the 24th there was a lack of Māori and Pasifika staff available.

The following day, there were "wellbeing concerns" for the leadership team, and on the 26th, "staff are tired, key roles are working extended hours and staff do not get the opportunity to recover".

It's important to note that at this stage, health teams were dealing with just 12 active community cases, and had a daily workload of following up with 218 people. 

Prof Gorman says it shows if we had a major outbreak tomorrow, we would not cope with it.

By March 1, with a peak of 15 active cases, and the COVID-19 team "overworked", there was concern whether they could cope with moving to surge level red if cases increased.

But the Director of Auckland Regional Public Health, Dr William Rainger, told Newshub "we would have been able to surge to red according to our plan".

That involves using staff from around the country, and trained Auckland Council and DHB staff. 

"Staff were initially stretched," he said, but the February outbreak quickly followed cases in late January "so staff didn't get much time to recover". 

Professor Shaun Hendy, Auckland University data modeller, said he thinks this reflects "the decades of under-investment in public health that we've had for a long time here in New Zealand".

Taiwan has been a COVID-19 success story - but it's now facing its biggest outbreak yet, registering a record 335 new cases on Monday. 

Professor Shaun Hendy says if we had a big outbreak, there'd be only one option.

"If our contact tracing system can't cope, then lockdown is really our last line of defence."

He says the data shows it's difficult to maintain readiness - but just like Taiwan, he says we must remain vigilant, as another outbreak here remains possible.

COVID Response Minister Chris Hipkins told Newshub New Zealand's contact tracing system "continues to improve".

He said all the country's public health units now share resources and the February outbreak was a lot more work than the one in August.

"The total number of contacts managed during the February outbreak was more than double than during the August outbreak within less than half the amount of time."