COVID-19: Northland officials prepare for Omicron outbreak in the lowest-vaccinated region

Officials in Te Tai Tokerau in Northland are scrambling to prepare for the rise of Omicron.

The region has the lowest vaccination rate so an explosion of the new, more infectious variant, could be disastrous.

"It is a case of when not if," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warns.

It almost feels like waiting for a tidal wave to hit. In Te Tai Tokerau, they know Omicron is coming, like it or not.

"When it does go, which it's gonna, it's going to be full-on soon. I think we're going to have to stay at home and just get someone to come in and do our shopping," Rawene resident Derek Heke says.

Heke lost his car wrecking business to COVID, he's determined it won't take his whanau. For many unvaccinated people, like him, Omicron presents a dilemma.

"What I hear online and that you know, I sort of get scared. But then again you think well I gotta look after my kids you know," Heke says.

The Northland region sits at 86 percent double-dosed, the lowest in Aotearoa. But in some communities rates are even lower. Kaikohe is 73 percent, Kaeo 71 percent, and Peria near Kaitaia 67 percent.

As of late this week 68 percent of eligible Northlanders had been boosted.

"I'm concerned about the low uptake of the boosters and if that doesn't change you could see the health system in Northland being overwhelmed," public health expert Professor Colin Tukuitonga says.

Dr Tukuitonga isn't the only one worried.

But in the North health officials want you to know, they're not sitting on their hands.

"We've been working on this for months and months. Since the Delta outbreak we've all been working extra hours every day," Northland DHB clinical lead Sarah Clarke says.

In an unassuming brick home Northland's COVID response is gearing up.

Ministry of Social Development in one room. Health, Police, Oranga Tamaraki in others, every agency needs to be on the same page.

But despite the hospital over the road having only ten ICU beds, alarm bells aren't ringing yet.

"I don't think we're worried about being overwhelmed per SE because one part of the system can come and help another part of the system and being quite rural it's likely our Omicron isn't going to hit everywhere at the same time," Dr Clarke says.

And when it does hit a call centre is being staffed, connecting patients with help. Down the road camper-vans are lined up for large families who need to be isolated. But Northland does have some unique challenges.

Northland has one of the country's largest Māori populations, more than 50,000. But only around 80 percent have been double-vaxxed. That presents a challenge for Māori health providers.

"There isn't that sense of urgency and it just takes a walk down the street to see that relaxed attitude," Te Hau Ora O Ngāpuhi's Mane Tahere says.

Attitudes Newshub found at times reject COVID-19 altogether.

"It's all a big lie. That's my view. It has already been proven the vaccine doesn't work," one man says.

This is the fight facing iwi, but they're getting on with it. At marae, cupboards are stocked with gowns, face-shields and oxygen readers.

Down the road five paddocks are growing kai to provide for families when they have to isolate.

It's about taking care of their own - by Māori for Māori.

"We're starting to look at the aunty who lives next to the marae, the uncle who does the grave-digging," Tahere says.

Northland's battle with Omicron isn't in full flight just yet. But when it is, the question will be "have they done enough?"

Derek Heke has decided he won't be taking any chances.

"Next two days bro... I think I'm going to get vaccinated," he says.

The growing threat making people like Heke focus hard on that decision.