COVID-19: Why new Omicron variant means Kiwis should take air quality seriously this summer - expert

A New Zealand expert is urging the Government to send clear messaging about meeting up outdoors to keep Kiwis safer this summer, especially if the new Omicron COVID-19 variant arrives on our shores.

On Friday, New Zealand will move to a new system of living - transitioning to the COVID Protection Framework or 'traffic light' system, which rates regions as red, orange or green depending on COVID-19 cases in the community and vaccination rates.

But the easing of restrictions coincides with the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa. While it's yet to arrive on our shores, it's caused global alarm - with countries including New Zealand limiting travel from southern Africa.

On Wednesday, epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig said New Zealand needed a "layered approach" to protecting people this summer.

"With a new variant on the horizon, this summer should be the one when New Zealanders start to take air quality seriously. Summer weather gives us so many opportunities to stay connected and stay safe," said Dr Kvalsvig, from the University of Otago in Wellington.

"It would be good to see clear messaging from Government about exercising and meeting up outdoors, and when indoors, keeping doors and windows open as much as possible.

"Where that isn't feasible, as is the case in many classrooms and workplaces, good ventilation systems and HEPA filters can help sustain air quality."

She said mask-wearing, as is still mandatory in most areas for regions under the 'red' traffic light setting, would also add another layer of protection. 

Dr Kvalsvig said while vaccination rates were good, immunisation alone wouldn't be enough to prevent outbreaks.

"COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and they make a tremendous contribution to pandemic control, but the protection isn't total and it's possible to be vaccinated but infectious. 

"The traffic light system puts a very high dependence on vaccination. That's concerning because as we’ve seen repeatedly in other countries, vaccination alone isn't enough to stop outbreaks when there are cases in the community. 

"What this means is that we need a layered approach to protection that will keep people safe over the holidays."

Joel Rindelaub, an aerosol chemist from the University of Auckland, agreed fresh air and other public health measures were still needed. 

Dr Ridenlaub said COVID-19 transmission happens about 20 times less often outdoors than indoors.

"Fresh air is vital to keeping us safe from respiratory viruses, yet the response to create better ventilated indoor environments has been behind that for other non-pharmaceutical interventions.

"The most important thing we've learned from this pandemic is that clean air is vital to keeping us healthy and it should be the pandemic's lasting lesson that helps inform future planning and policy.

"With COVID-19 in the community, limiting time indoors is a good way to reduce potential exposure to the virus."

He suggested people should utilise outdoor seating at hospitality venues where possible.