The New Zealand government on Thursday announced free masks and rapid antigen tests as it tries to stem the spread of COVID-19 and relieve pressure on the country's health system which is dealing with an influx of COVID and influenza patients.
There has been a significant jump in the number of new COVID cases in New Zealand in the past couple of week and authorities are forecasting that this wave of Omicron might be worst than the first.
The hospital system is already struggling with increases in wait times and surgeries having to be cancelled.
"There's no question the combination of a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations, the worst flu season in recent memory and corresponding staff absences are putting health workers and the whole health system under extreme pressure," Ayesha Verrall, Minister for COVID-19 Response, said in a statement.
New Zealand, which has a population of 5.1 million, recorded 11,382 new cases of COVID on Thursday, with a total of 68,737 currently infected with the virus. Of those 765 cases are currently in hospital.
A one-time poster child for tackling the coronavirus, New Zealand's swift response to the pandemic and its geographic isolation kept the country largely COVID free until the end of last year. The government, however, retired its zero-COVID policy earlier this year once the population was largely vaccinated and the virus has been allowed to spread.
Verrall said while COVID-zero was no longer a possibility people did need to wear masks, to get tested and to isolate if either they or someone in their home tests positive to the virus.
The government is making free masks and tests more widely available, allowing pharmacies to sell COVID medicines and is expanding the criteria for who is eligible for antiviral medication.
"Now's not the time to stop wearing masks. Evidence tells us wearing a mask halves your chance of being infected with COVID-19. It also helps protect you against influenza and other winter illnesses so if you don't wear a mask for yourself, please wear one for healthcare workers," said Verrall.
Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Michael Perry
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