Coronavirus: Dr Ashley Bloomfield addresses media over COVID-19 response

Dr Ashley Bloomfield will provide an update on New Zealand's response to COVID-19 and winter illness at 12pm.

There were 8730 new community cases reported on Wednesday with 808 people in hospital. In the past seven days, there has been 17 deaths confirmed each as being attributale to COVID-19.

These live updates have now finished.

12:30pm - Dr Bloomfield says some countries have approved vaccination for under 5s, but New Zealand hasn't yet had an application for that. Once an application is received, that will be assessed. 

He says it's important New Zealand continues to maintain its current COVID-19 measures, especially during winter. We should keep every tool in the tool box.

The Ministry of Health has been willing to change it's advice over the past two years, he says. 

Dr Bloomfield says he has no regrets as he gave the best advice possible based on what was known at the time. But he says we tend to underestimate the capability of our communities and providing them with the resources and information to do the right thing can lead to enormous success.

12:25pm - Dr Bloomfield is now speaking about the past two years and his experience as Director-General of Health during the pandemic. He says he is confident in his colleagues to lead the COVID-19 response into the future.

12:20pm - New Zealand is looking at securing supply to a vaccine for Monkeypox, he says. But he reiterates there is no community transmission. It's likely New Zealand will get more cases from people coming into the country from overseas.

Dr Old continues to encourage mask-use to help with limiting the spread of COVID-19. It also helps with other winter illnesses.

He also offers his thanks to Dr Bloomfield. This is thought to be his 307th press conference, Dr Old says. 

12:15pm - Dr Watson thanks Dr Bloomfield for his leadership. Dr Bloomfield finishes in the Director-General role this week. 

Dr Watson says there is clear awareness of the pressure on the health sector currently. This is down to COVID-19, but also winter illnesses, he says. Staff absences due to illness is also having an impact. Pressures are expected to last for some months before easing, he says.

He is going over ways Health NZ is dealing with pressures, such as by having a unified approach across the country.

Dr Old confirms there are no new cases of Monkeypox in New Zealand. The total stands at two and both cases are recovered. But case numbers globally are rising, with 16,000 across 60 countries, including in Australia. WHO designated Monkeypox as a public health event of international concern this week. New Zealand is looking at what it needs to do in response and is making sure processes are in line with the most up to date evidence, Dr Old says.

12:10pm - Here's a statement from the Ministry of Health on new funding for water fluoridation:

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has made directions under the Health Act to 14 local authorities to add fluoride to some or all of their water supplies. It is the first time this power has been used since the relevant legislation was amended last year to ensure a national approach to fluoridating water.

Local authorities who are directed to fluoridate their water supplies will be invited to apply for funding from a $11.3 million fund for capital projects associated with these works.

Fluoridation is proven to be a safe, affordable and effective method of preventing tooth decay, Dr Bloomfield says.

"Community water fluoridation benefits everyone, but especially children, Māori, Pasifika and our most vulnerable. That's why it is supported by the Pasifika Dental Association and Te Ao Mārama (the Māori Dental Association).

"Water fluoridation helps prevent tooth decay, along with brushing your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, eating healthy food and avoiding sugary drinks. Fluoride in water acts like a constant repair kit for your teeth.

"The role of fluoride in water has been well examined around the world – including in New Zealand – over the past 60 years. The Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor recently looked at new information about water fluoridation and found there's no evidence it causes any significant health issues at the fluoride levels used here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

"Fluoridated water is safe for everyone to drink – including babies and the elderly – and fluoride exists naturally in air, soil, fresh water, sea water, plants and in food," Dr Bloomfield says.

The 2009 New Zealand oral health survey showed that children and adolescents living in areas with fluoridated water have a 40 percent lower lifetime incidence of tooth decay than those living in areas without.

The Health (Fluoridation of Drinking Water) Amendment Act 2021 shifted the decision-making authority on community water fluoridation from local authorities to the Director-General of Health on the basis that it is a health-based decision.

"We estimate that adding fluoride to the water supply in these 14 local authority areas will increase the number of New Zealanders receiving fluoridated water from 51% to around 60%.  It's likely that later this year the Director-General of Health will actively consider whether to issue further directions to fluoridate.

The Ministry of Health will track improvements over time in the oral health of communities receiving water fluoridation.

12:05pm - The BA.5 Omicron subvariant is becoming dominant in New Zealand, Dr Bloomfield says. By July 18, more than 60 percent of cases were BA.5 and that's expected to increase. A "full takeover" of BA.5 can be expected by early August, he says.

There is a chance hospital occupancy could hit more than 1000 occupied beds, but New Zealand is tracking closer to a peak of 850. Hospitalisations are about a week behind case rates. While case rates could hit 16,000 per day, modelling now says it is more likely to peak around 12,000.

The worst-case scenario is now "highly unlikely". That would have been 1200 occupied beds and more than 20,000 cases per day.

Research shows getting boostered is one of the most critical things someone can do to reduce the risk of dying from COVID-19, Dr Bloomfield says. People not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (meaning less than two doses) is six times more likely to die if they catch COVID-19 compared to someone with at least one booster dose.

For those who died who were between 20 and 60, about half of those deaths could have been avoided if all of those people had been boosted, Dr Bloomfield says.

12pm - Dr Bloomfield says there are 8730 new COVID-19 cases and 808 people in hospital. There are now 1427 deaths confirmed as attributable to COVID-19. The seven-day rolling average is 17.

He says case rates are trending downwards across New Zealand. That is supported by wastewater results and test positivity of people being admitted into hospital. In the week to 24 July, the case rate from reported test result decreased by about 12 percent compared with the previous week. That case rate decline is also being found in the 65+ age group. The hospitalisation rate to the end of last week did decrease, but have increased again.

11:55am - We have placed the livestream in the video component above.

11:45am - At 12pm, we will hear from Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield about New Zealand's response to COVID-19 and winter illness.

He will be joined by the Public Health Agency’s Deputy Director-General Andrew Old and Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand’s interim national medical director Dr Pete Watson.

This could be Dr Bloomfield's final press conference. He is leaving the Director-General role at the end of this month.

Newshub will stream the press conference above.

11:25am - Kia ora, good morning, and welcome to Newshub's live updates.

We are awaiting the latest COVID-19 update from the Ministry of Health. On Tuesday, more than 9000 new community cases were reported, though the seven-day rolling average dropped to 8335 from 8498 a day prior. 

There were 822 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 24 in ICU or HDU. Over the past seven days, an average of 17 deaths have been confirmed each day as being attributable to COVID-19.