COVID-19 warning: Omicron will overwhelm us within a week if it takes hold in New Zealand, experts say

Lab workers have given a stark warning about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, saying they'll be overwhelmed within a week if it takes hold in New Zealand. 

There are calls to ditch the mantra of 'test, test, test' and instead cautiously decide who actually needs one.

An emergency doctor is also sounding alarm bells, emphasising that emergency departments here will struggle if we follow Australia's path.

Thursday was a sluggish summer day around New Zealand on the coronavirus testing front, but it's unlikely to remain slow.

"We've certainly got to get together now and come up with a plan that works so that we do not inundate our laboratories and therefore the other health services," says Terry Taylor, Institute of Medical Laboratory Science president.

Inundated services are exactly what New South Wales is grappling with currently - the state registered almost 34,994 cases on Thursday.

Terry Taylor says the 'test, test, test' messaging we've heard so often needs to be ditched. He told Newshub lab services would collapse in a week if we continued normal testing during a surge of Omicron. 

"It is really not an option to test everyone. We need to be looking at who we test, how we test and when we test," he said.

Elspeth Frascatore is an emergency department doctor based in Auckland. She believes New Zealand is currently in a grace period - but it won't last.

"It does worry me because you're looking at healthcare systems across the world really struggling - and looking at my own health care system and seeing that we are at times struggling even without Omicron," she said.

Frascatore is nervous about staff numbers. 

"I would go as far to say that we are in a crisis from the point of view of staffing. That's nationwide; it's not specific to rural or DHB."

During the holiday season, emergency departments have often been overloaded. If an Omicron surge happens, all other care suffers as well. 

"If you start seeing things like cancer care being impacted upon, and you're seeing that abroad in places like the NHS, that's what worries me," Frascatore says.

Sarah Dalton, executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, doesn't know if New Zealand is ready for Omicron.

"We would rather that there is not a significant outbreak, and we would certainly rather that if there's going to be after heaps of people have started accessing their boosters."

And again, ICU readiness remains a point of contention as the spread of Omicron looms.

Official information reveals even back in April 2020 the then Minister David Clark was told the "Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society sought to triple the existing stock of ICU capable beds".

It also warned "ICU-trained nurses would be a critical factor".

"They were given the advice, why did they not run with it?" asks National health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti.

Dr Reti says Health Minister Andrew Little didn't act on the issue. 

"There was plenty in Andrew Little's hands to build our ICU capacity and our ICU workforce and he did nothing."

Late last year, Little announced a $100 million investment to expand ICU services, but it'll be another six months before the new beds are actually available.