Omicron continues to circulate in the community and open borders will bring new COVID-19 variants, flu, and other infectious illnesses, putting additional pressure on the entire health system including GP practices, pharmacies, community health clinics, emergency ambulances as well as emergency departments.
The Ministry of Health’s Health System Preparedness Programme Clinical Advisor, Dr Joe Bourne, says that while winter is always busy for local health providers, it is likely that this season will see increased pressure on the health system with the possibility of more COVID-19 and influenza in the community, as well as illnesses we haven’t seen for some time, such as measles and whooping cough.
‘After two years of closed borders, our immunity to these illnesses will be low and we need to do all we can to keep ourselves and our whānau healthy,’ says Dr Bourne.
‘We also need to alleviate pressure on the entire health system to ensure that our hospitals, general practices, ambulance services and urgent care centres are all available when they’re needed by people with urgent medical problems.
‘Everyone can do their bit to reduce pressure on health services by ensuring they keep themselves well during winter. If you haven’t got your COVID-19 vaccination, do it now. If you’re due for your COVID-19 booster, get it now. If you haven’t been vaccinated against the flu, do it now, it’s not too late. This will help ensure health services are available for those who really need urgent care.
‘Vaccination is the best defence against many preventable illnesses. It’s essential that we are all up-to-date with our protection for flu, COVID-19 and other illnesses like measles.’
Dr Bourne says there are a number of simple actions people can take to help safeguard their personal health this winter as well.
‘Based on what we’ve learned from living with COVID-19 over the past two years, wearing a face mask indoors, when shopping or on public transport, as well as keeping up our hand hygiene will help protect us and prevent the spread of illnesses to the people around us.
‘We can boost our immunity against illness by eating healthy foods, staying active, and getting plenty of sleep. It’s important to look after our mental health too.
‘If you do get sick, please stay at home. Remember, the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are very similar so it’s important to get a COVID-19 test and to log the results – negative or positive – on the My Covid Record website. This enables us to track how COVID-19 is spreading in our communities and where to direct resources.
‘Once you’ve recovered and are out of isolation, you can have flu and MMR vaccinations, and then after a three-month-wait you can get your next COVID-19 vaccination. Even if you have had COVID-19, it is still important to get boosted to lower your risk of serious illness if you catch it again.’
Dr Bourne says there are many minor ailments that can be treated with over-the-counter medicines, so people who are not seriously ill are encouraged to seek advice from their local pharmacist.
‘These measures will help our GPs and primary health care providers to focus on supporting those who are at most risk of becoming seriously unwell this winter.’
The Ministry of Health recommends people take the following steps to stay well this winter, and to encourage their whānau, friends and colleagues to do the same: