More than 200 Ryman residents tuned in for a COVID-19 update and quiz with one of New Zealand’s leading epidemiologists, Professor Michael Baker.
Professor Baker, a member of the Government’s COVID-19 technical advisory panel, gave a presentation to residents on New Zealand’s response to the pandemic, and a comparison with other countries.
Professor Baker, who has completed more than 2,000 media interviews since the pandemic began, joked that it had been hard a few years ago to get any media interest in pandemic planning. Times had changed.
“In my working life there’s never been anything quite like this where everyone has been engaged in one massive public health challenge,’’ he said.
He said there the pandemic as the had been a ‘white knuckle’ ride for everyone.
“I don’t think anything had prepared us for COVID-19,’’ he said.
Professor Baker said the official estimate to date is that about 4.5 million people have died of COVID-19, but this could be as high as 18 million by some estimates.
“In the US life expectancy dropped by 18 months last year – the biggest drop since World War 2. That’s astounding,’’ he said.
“I think we should be very grateful for the combination of science and good political leadership. This meant we changed tack and we are navigating our way through this as best we can.’’
By following a COVID-19 elimination strategy, and differentiating its response from places such as Britain, New Zealand had saved an estimated 9,600 lives, Professor Baker said.
And, because of the lockdowns and COVID precautions, 2,000 fewer New Zealanders had died during the winter because flu had also failed to take hold.
“So we’re about 12,000 lives ahead. We actually had the lowest mortality rate in the world last year which is an amazing result.’’
In answer to the burning question about what the future looked like, Professor Baker said the medium to long term strategies to contain the virus were uncertain.
The options included progressive elimination, which was very difficult to do. The other option was long term suppression, which meant vaccinating and using public health measures to dampen infections down.
Elimination has worked well but it was likely that the suppression approach, which New Zealand is moving to, is going to be the reality.
Professor Baker said it was impossible to undo the harm done since the pandemic began, or to turn back the clock.
“But I think we have even more of a responsibility to look at the positive lessons we have learned and build on them. I think we woe that to those who have suffered in the pandemic.’’
He said two positive things had come out of the response.
The first was to prove that basic public health measures – such as maintaining social distance and mask wearing – can stop a pandemic in its tracks.
The second was that vaccines could be developed quickly and safely and could also be incredibly effective.
Professor Baker said the key to coping in the future with COVID-19 was to combine vaccination with other public health measures such as mask wearing.
“Vaccines greatly reduce mortality risk, but they don’t make the virus go away. That’s why there is so much discussion about the other things (such as mask wearing) you can do to help.’’
And he had a warning that New Zealand need to speed up its vaccine programme.
“Vaccine rates are not high enough to give New Zealand protection at this stage, and we were still some way off the best performers in the world when it came to vaccine rates.
“It is going to take us until mid-December to get to good coverage,’’ he said.
His other worry was health inequality – Maori and Pacific Island vaccination rates need to improve.
Following his presentation he was joined in a panel discussion by Ben Harris, microbiologist, and consultant to Ryman Healthcare to answer questions ranging from possible booster shots through to how to wipe down surfaces.
Professor Baker thanked the Ryman residents for their intelligent questions. He said it seemed a long time since it all began.
“I seem to have spent the past 18 months speaking. I’m boring myself now – I hope it all ends soon!’’
Professor Baker’s COVID-19 realities
- COVID fatality risk is 17 times greater than the seasonal flu
- A high proportion of the population is aged over 60 and have long term health conditions that make them harder to protect from COVID
- Here immunity requires an effective vaccine
- Public health and economic health go together
- We have multiple effective and safe vaccines.