COVID-19: Auckland Regional Public Health Service struggled dealing with just 14 new daily cases during Omicron outbreak

Documents obtained by Newshub show the country's biggest public health unit struggled during the Omicron outbreak, even when dealing with just 14 new daily cases. 

The biggest issue was staff shortages at Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) and there's concern we won't cope when the next outbreak or variant hits. 

As Omicron emerged in the community last year, motorways were empty and testing sites filled up. But with only a handful of cases, ARPHS struggled with "workforce shortages".

Situation reports obtained by Newshub under the Official Information Act reveal that on January 24, with just 14 new daily cases, there were "shortages" of public health medicine specialists and a lack of administration staff was "causing strain".

By February 2 with 104 new cases, "critical roles" were vacant, including in operations and project management, and the Ministry of Health's Māori health-focused unit Pae Ora was "thin on staffing and resources". 

When cases hit more than 12,000, there were "capacity concerns" with the Pacific team and "critical resource issues" were noted with the "resignation of an operations manager".

"After two years, you'd expect to have some system efficiencies in place, so I think it's actually very disconcerting," said Professor Des Gorman, from Auckland University's School of Medicine.

He added that future outbreaks are inevitable, there will be new variants in the community, and we can't have any confidence that the contact tracing system will manage it.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: Getty Images

But the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield isn't concerned and said contact tracing is handled nationally and the workload can be shared. 

"And that allows us to use public health units around the country as well as a number of providers that we contract with directly," he said.

To cope with shortages, public health asked trainee doctors and medical students to help. 

"Why has this capacity to do contact tracing been consistently exaggerated?" Prof Gorman said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is adamant our response remains "gold standard" and said we've done better than others.  

"This pandemic has been going for two years and New Zealand still stands amongst the best in the OECD in terms of our experience with this pandemic," she said.

The key will be remaining "the best" amid documents that show critical workforces are under significant stress. 

The director of ARPHS William Rainger told Newshub there remains an ongoing national shortage of public health medicine specialists. But he said all these situations and experiences will support the development of future plans as the pandemic response evolves.