Omicron could be predominant in NZ within two to four weeks if outbreak occurs

If Omicron enters the community, it's likely to become the predominant variant as quickly as within two weeks, the Ministry of Health says.

The variant has wreaked havoc overseas, forcing countries that had lifted restrictions in mid-late 2021 to slap them back on as case totals skyrocketed. While experts have found Omicron is less severe than previous strains, such as Delta, it is highly transmissible.

So far, New Zealand has avoided a community outbreak of Omicron, but the number of the variant cases at the border continues to grow. The Ministry of Health reported on Friday there have been 266 Omicron infections there since December 1.

While the ministry says New Zealand has "taken steps to manage the risk of a community Omicron outbreak linked to border cases", such as by making changes to MIQ stays, experts say it is probably a matter of when, rather than if, Omicron eventually gets into the community.

The ministry told Newshub on Friday that work is underway to understand the impact the variant may have on hospital capacity here. 

"International evidence suggests new cases from Omicron will spread rapidly and the variant will be the predominant variant in New Zealand within 2-4 weeks," a spokesperson said.

"To date, NZ has seen lower rates of hospitalisation than those seen in many other jurisdictions. Continuing high rates of vaccination, ongoing public health measures and strong border controls have contributed to this."

As of Wednesday, the ministry says 65.2 percent of ICU or HDU beds and 84.4 percent of ward beds were occupied, while 18 percent of ventilators were in use. However, only a small number of these are being used by COVID-19 patients. The Friday COVID-19 update said there were 34 people in hospital with the virus, two of which were either in ICU or HDU.

"These figures are based on the proportion of ‘resourced’ capacity in place on 12 January. However, it is important to note that capacity changes daily, influenced by local needs, resources and staffing," the ministry says.

"The Ministry estimates hospitals could surge to approximately 550 ICU capable beds if required, which includes ICU capable beds that can be converted to allow further capacity if needed. Importantly, not all patients who have COVID-19 will need to be on a ventilator, or in an ICU."

District Health Boards (DHBs) have respiratory equipment for a range of oxygen therapies that can be done outside ICU, the ministry says. 

"These can be critical in the management of COVID-19 patients.

"Significant work has been undertaken by all DHBs, coordinated nationally by the Ministry of Health, to prepare for both managing COVID-19 in the community and any surge in case numbers. 

"This includes DHBs undertaking preparedness plans including regional planning to share skills, resources and how to coordinate responses. DHBs have identified staffing needs and are providing training and refresher courses for staff from across their organisations for this purpose."

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, from the University of Otago, says Omicron is a "huge threat" and earlier in January claimed it would likely eventually get into the community. 

He said eliminating Delta before it arrives would be beneficial

"Eliminating Delta in New Zealand would be wonderful because if Omicron arrives, which unfortunately does look fairly likely, we might have only Omicron circulating and one of the worries overseas is what's called 'co-circulation' of two different viral strains - Omicron and Delta.

"We know Delta is causing much more severe illness. We look at places where they've got both [Omicron and Delta] circulating together; the people in ICU have Delta, the people who are feeling really sick and who sometimes get to hospital have Omicron."