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Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

SocietyFebruary 14, 2022

Everything you need to know about apartments and omicron

Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

For people living in high-density housing, the arrival of omicron raises plenty of questions around how to keep yourself safe. So we asked the experts. 

For the socially inept, living in an apartment building is tricky enough without the added threat of a Covid-19 outbreak. Every day we are faced with awkward conversations in the lobby, guilty glances when shuffling UberEats down the hallway, shared Facebook group rows and rubbish room spats. But with the omicron variant of Covid-19 in the mix, apartment life has become a real headache for the thousands of New Zealanders living in close quarters to one another. 

As omicron continues to spread and the country prepares for our biggest infection numbers yet, the government has released a three-phase plan in response to the latest outbreak. But what does it all mean for those of us who share hallways, lifts and balconies on the daily? We’ve read the latest Ministry of Health guidance and consulted with the experts, in an attempt to answer every stupid question about apartment life and omicron that we could think of. 

OK, how is this omicron situation different to delta for apartment dwellers?

“Well, that is a great question,” lied Dr Joel Rindelaub, aerosol chemist at the University of Auckland. “Based on the data we have, it appears to be much more transmissible. So, it means that we have to be extra safe in our apartment buildings, especially now that a lot of cases will be isolating at home. That’s going to be the big difference right there – you will now be much more likely to have a positive case in your apartment building.” 

Tim Jones, vice president of Body Corporate Chairs’ Group, which represents collectives of unit owners within multi-unit buildings or complexes, says apartment dwellers need to stay even more vigilant in the age of omicron. “If you are in a house and you step out into your garden, it’s really not going to create much problem. But with a highly contagious variant, all you have to do is step out of your apartment and walk down the corridor, coughing without a mask on, and potentially someone else coming out of their unit could then pick it up.” 

Put even more plainly, he says that “if people don’t take care in an apartment building, you could be looking at a petri dish for infection”. 

Petri dish of infection sounds pretty bad, how do we avoid that? 

The first crucial step is to wear a mask whenever you leave your apartment. “Definitely wear the best protection you have whenever you are leaving that apartment.” In short, every time you open your front door, there is a potential for exposure. 

Which mask provides the best protection against that exposure? 

Face masks must be attached to the face by loops around the ears or head, which means no more scarves, bandanas, t-shirts, or lettuce leaves. Rindelaub recommends apartment dwellers get themselves plenty of respirator masks like N95s or P2s masks. “Those will help you better than some of the cloth varieties that we have been using previously,” he says. “You want to use the best mask you have whenever you are in or exposed to communal areas to reduce your risk.”

How are we supposed to navigate narrow apartment hallways? 

The Ministry of Health encourages social distancing of one metre when accessing hallways, foyers and waiting areas in an apartment complex. If there is seating in any of these areas, your body corporate may want to either remove them, or at least space them one metre apart. “If you can, definitely try to minimise your time spent in the hallways if other people are also there,” says Rindelaub. I like to employ the Kardashian peek around every corner, but that’s just me. 

What about the apartment lifts? 

Unless you are with your bubble, the use of apartment lifts should be limited to one person at a time. While waiting for a lift, maintain at least one metre of distance between you and your fellow apartment dwellers. Don’t stand too close to the door in case, hypothetically, a woman and her large dog are standing right on the other side of the door and hypothetically you get a huge fright and hypothetically fall backwards into a pot plant. Take the stairs whenever possible.

I have trouble with confrontation, how do I tell someone not to get in the lift with me? 

Although not strictly within his area of expertise, Rindelaub advises that you “use your best judgment” when navigating lift-based interactions. “You could try putting up your hand to say stop and then just shake your head back and forth,” he says. “You don’t even have to talk to people this way.” If you want to stay friendly yet distant while passing a neighbour, here are some alternative greetings that we prepared at the beginning of the pandemic: 

Alternatively, here are some musical cues you can use to tell people nearby to stop right now, get back and show some patience

Who is the point of contact in my building for all things Covid-19? 

As recommended by the Ministry of Health, every apartment building should have appointed a Covid-19 contact person to act as a conduit between cases in the building and public health services. This person could be appointed from the body corporate, and works to support positive cases during their isolation. The ministry has not outlined whether or not the Covid-19 contact person wears a snazzy vest.  

Tim Jones of the Body Corporate Chairs Group says there is a “real problem” in the number of apartment dwellers, especially tenants, who are disconnected from the governance structure of their building. “Both owners and tenants should be making contact with their body corporate, or the committee who runs the body corporate. Then they’ll need to find out if a Covid contact has been appointed and, if not, ask why not?”

If you don’t know how to get in touch with your apartment overlords, your building manager is a good place to start. “It falls back on building management to look after the person who is prepared to disclose that he or she is a positive case and is isolating,” Jones says, “because that will help them to get contact numbers for emergency services, somebody to help friends or whānau to get groceries into them, and to take away rubbish and do all that sort of stuff.” 

If I test positive, do I need to swipe blood on my door to tell people to stay away? 

You don’t need to go that far, but both Jones and Rindelaub recommend sharing the information with either your neighbours or someone from the body corporate. “It would be the neighbourly thing to do, says Rindelaub. “If I was living in an apartment and my neighbour had the ‘rona, I would like to know that so I can take as many precautions as I possibly could.” 

Jones says that sharing this information with others is also useful in the event that you need extra support while isolating. “Unless you’ve got some family or friends who can get in and out of your unit, you aren’t going to get an awful lot of support. Your nearest and dearest support systems are actually your neighbours in your apartment building.” 

Argh, what if I don’t know my neighbours?!

Most apartment buildings will have some kind of Facebook group for residents, or you could slip a friendly note with your contact details into their mailboxes (just don’t spell them out with magazine clippings). 

How long do I need to isolate for if I test positive?

Currently, you will need to isolate for at least 14 days while you recover and be symptom-free for 72 hours, but this will reduce to 10 days once cases ramp up and we move to phase two of the omicron response “Isolating” means you cannot leave your apartment for any reason other than an emergency, which means you will need to think about the supplies and tasks you might need help with from friends, whānau or other residents in your building. 

What do I need to prepare in advance of isolating? 

It pays to write a few things down about the people isolating in your household, including names, ages, NHI numbers, medical conditions and any medications required. In the event that you need to leave your apartment to go to hospital or a managed isolation facility, write down instructions for any pet and/or plant maintenance that might be required in your absence. 

The Covid-19 preparation page also recommends that you assemble a basic hygiene kit including tissues, soap, sanitiser, masks, cleaning products, gloves and rubbish bags. To help with symptoms, stock up on ibuprofen and paracetamol, lemon tea, honey, cough syrup, nasal spray, lozenges and vapour rubs. Also think about entertainment – how’s that Netflix watchlist looking? For more on isolating at home, here’s a handy guide that Siouxsie Wiles prepared earlier.

What happens with rubbish and food if I am isolating? Do I just eat my rubbish? 

You must not leave your apartment to dispose of rubbish while isolating, which means you’ll need to arrange for family, friends or neighbours to lend a hand. Stock up on rubbish bags – it is recommended that you double bag your rubbish before leaving it outside your door. Make sure that nobody is in the hallway when you open your door, and that the door is firmly closed before someone collects it. They will need to wear gloves and wash their hands afterwards. 

It is a similar story for getting food – if you need groceries you will have to arrange for somebody to bring them up to your front door, only to be collected when that person has left the immediate area. Both deliverer and recipient should wear a mask for the entirety of the grocery exchange. If you’ve got a complicated entry system, make sure your support network knows how to use it. 

Your apartment if you don’t organise a friend to help with your rubbish.

If I test positive, am I allowed to access my own balcony? 

You can keep your balcony doors open to encourage air circulation in and out of the unit, but stepping out onto your balcony while positive depends on the layout of the balcony and whether or not somebody else is using it at the same time. If the balcony is not separate from your neighbour’s balcony, or is less than one metre away from neighbouring units, it is a no-go zone. 

How else should I ventilate my apartment while isolating? 

I would try to open the windows to help get that good airflow happening as much as possible,” says Rindelaub. “If you have Covid and you don’t want to spread it to other people, you’re going to want a fan blowing out towards the window – it’s going to suck up all the dirty nasty air in your apartment and throw it outside away from people.” The ministry also recommends positive cases seal the gaps under their front doors, especially if they open into a hallway.

If someone tests positive in my building, who will be considered a close contact? 

The public health unit will determine if someone is a close contact, but expect that definition to vary between different apartment complexes. “Technically speaking, if you are in the hallway and you’ve got the ‘rona, you could be breathing out aerosol particles that could stay there and infect people for around 20 minutes or so,” says Rindelaub. “So it would certainly be advantageous for everyone on your floor to know if there were positive cases.”

The configuration of your apartment building may also be a factor, says Jones. “For instance, somewhere like Stamford Residences [a downtown apartment block in Auckland] is almost a hotel configuration with long corridors with units going off each side,” he says. “If you’ve got 10 units on each side, all 20 of those could be considered close contacts because of the way the airflow is.” 

If you are deemed a close contact, you will need to get tested several times during your isolation period. Public health representatives will provide information on when to get tested, how to safely access testing, and how long you will need to stay in isolation for. 

How do I take care of my physical and mental health while cooped up in an apartment? 

An apartment dweller himself, Jones sympathises with those who might have to isolate in a confined space with little access to the outdoors. “A lot of people will really struggle to live in a one bedroom apartment for a period of 14 days without any real contact and go stir crazy,” he says. Check out this handy guide by Melody Smith on how to maintain your physical wellbeing indoors, and this interview with clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire about caring for your mental health during a resurgence. 

Keep going!