Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Heartland warning after multiple rest home deaths

Two thirds of Covid-19 related deaths in one of New Zealand’s most isolated health districts during the Omicron outbreak have been rest home residents – sparking a warning from the regional health boss.

Nine people have died in Hauora Tairāwhiti – formerly known as the Tairāwhiti District Health Board – since Omicron started its rapid spread across New Zealand in January.

The health board has now confirmed that six of those who died were residents of aged care facilities in its catchment; which spreads from East Cape to the Wharerata ranges.

Local officials have announced with “sadness” that three rest home residents died last week.

Late last month, a further three elderly rest home residents were confirmed to have died after contracting Covid-19. Another elderly person from the region also died after getting Omicron, but they were living at home.

All seven of the elder Covid-19 related deaths had pre-existing health conditions.

“Seven of our pākeke have left us in the past two months. This is a sad reminder how vulnerable our older people are to Covid,” Hauora Tairāwhiti chief executive Jim Green said.

“Please do your part to protect our vulnerable. Get your booster now, get your tamariki vaccinated, continue to wear masks and practise good habits like regular hand washing and keeping your distance.

“We ask the community to respect the privacy of the families at this difficult time.”

Late last month – when announcing four earlier deaths, including the initial three rest home residents – Green said the thoughts and aroha from all health staff were with the whānau of the death.

“This sad announcement shows the affects Covid can have on our vulnerable population. We must do all we can to keep people safe from the virus.”

Figures nationally released in late March showed more than 110 aged care homes were battling Covid-19 cases and 27 residents had died after catching the virus.

The Herald reported last week that the Tairāwhiti region now had New Zealand’s biggest per-capita Covid-19 case tally. Previously it was the least-infected region.

Its nearly 10,900 cases equated to about 21.9 per cent of the DHB area’s population – and perhaps just a third of its true infection numbers.

That compared with the mere seven cases – or just 0.01 per cent of the population – reported in the region up until January 23.

Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank pointed out reported cases only accounted for a proportion of actual infections – and perhaps just one in three.

“That would put Tairāwhiti’s cumulative attack rate at about 60 to 65 per cent,” he said.

“That’s high, but it’s not inconsistent with what other countries have estimated in their own Omicron waves.”

The rapid spread of Omicron in the Tairāwhiti health region was highlighted by how quick it spread in Ruatoria.

A staggering 22 per cent of the town’s population tested positive to the Covid-19 variant in the space of three weeks since its first confirmed case was recorded there in late February.

Late last year local iwi leadership – fearing what could happen if Covid-19 spread through the East Coast given the very limited health resources available in the isolated province – urged people not to visit over the summer months.

Some of those fears around rapid spread were then realised, with 172 people in the town of Ruatoria – which has a population of 759 – testing positive to Omicron by mid-March.

Te Runanganui o Ngāti Porou chair Selwyn Parata said at the time that while the rising case numbers were naturally concerning, local iwi and hapū were being pro-active to do all they could to protect the region’s population.

But he stressed individuals also had a big role in protecting the vulnerable, including getting tested if they felt unwell and undertaking isolation if they were confirmed with Covid-19.

There are no specialist hospital facilities on the East Coast to care for seriously ill Covid-19 patients. The closest hospital is in Gisborne, almost a two-hour drive from Ruatoria.

“It is scary. But we will get over it, we will get over it together,” he told the Herald.

“We won’t get over it one by one . . . everyone is going to have to pull their weight. We have to work together . . . don’t think of ‘myself’, but think of our family, our neighbours.

“Our hapū are working very well with our communities. There is a lot of Covid in the small community, but people are relatively disciplined.”

Parata issued an impassioned plea late last year for those considering travelling to the region – including those who were from the East Coast but now lived elsewhere – to delay their plans.

In the open letter, the proud Ngāti Porou leader wrote how “our region’s health services struggle to service our people as it is now”.

He said it was “not an exaggeration to say that health services will be overwhelmed when Covid-19 arrives in our region”.

“Ngāti Porou people will be at the worst end of that struggle; some of us will become seriously ill and some of us may die,” he wrote.

“The reality is that our region, and our people, have some of the worst health, wellbeing, and social statistics in Aotearoa. We also have one of the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rates across all of Aotearoa’s DHBs.

“Many people are working long hours, doing the best they can, to turn around those statistics, but it will take time to reverse a situation caused by deep-seated and long-standing inequities.”

Now that Covid-19 was in the region, he told the Herald his message to locals was “to be careful”.

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