Image design by Tina Tiller
Image design by Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 30, 2021

How to lower your Covid risk these summer holidays

Image design by Tina Tiller
Image design by Tina Tiller

Very soon travel will be allowed for most Aucklanders, but steps can be taken to limit risk of catching and spreading Covid-19 around the country.

From December 15, Aucklanders will be able to travel around the country relatively freely, despite there being a significant number of ongoing community cases. People who want to travel beyond the Auckland boundary will need to be fully vaccinated or have a negative Covid-19 test in the three days before travelling, or be under 12 years of age. (In the outbreak so far, 15% of cases have been under 10 years old and 12% have been fully vaccinated.) This will reduce the number of cases that leave Auckland, but it’s still probable that people who are infected will travel. Cases will spread all over the country as people travel to see whānau for Christmas, and go on holiday to popular beaches, rivers and lakes.

Using electronic transaction data from previous years, we are able to derive movement patterns across the country. Public holidays and school holidays are easily identified in the movement patterns we see in this data. In a week with no boosting from holiday effects, there were typically just over 100,000 distinct travellers in the dataset who left Auckland to visit one or more other regions.

For the summer period in 2019-2020, close to 200,000 people per week left Auckland over the summer holiday period, with this peaking over the Christmas and New Year period. The most common destinations for these trips were Thames-Coromandel (30,000 people), Tauranga (17,000 people), and Northland (15,000 people).

While vaccination levels in Auckland are relatively good (remembering that 90% of eligible people being vaccinated means only about 75% of total population and lower rates for Māori), vaccination levels are much lower in many of the places that Aucklanders like to travel to over summer. These lower vaccination rates provide much less protection against both illness and transmission, meaning any outbreak would be larger and more rapid. Vaccination coverage in these areas is increasing but is unlikely to be at 90% in all areas before Christmas. Holiday destinations also have health services infrastructure designed for the much lower local resident population, so face an additional pressure on smaller scale health services if visitors get sick.

New Zealand’s great outdoor summer lifestyle might be an advantage; transmission is greatly reduced when people are outdoors and there is good air movement and ventilation. However, people should remain mindful anytime they move into an environment with less ventilation, for example, using the toilet at the beach, or sharing a car to go and get supplies from town. A good rule of thumb is if you could smell perfume in the environment where you are then there’s transmission risk. The main route of transmission for Covid-19 is through aerosol spread, this means it’s passed on through breathing in the air that someone else breathed out. This is why masking is such a good way to reduce transmission – but you need to wear it properly.

Reduce your chances of exposure in the two weeks before you leave town.

It’s understandable that people will want to meet up with friends and whānau they haven’t seen for a while, but if you can limit the number of different groups of people you meet each week before Christmas, you will increase the likelihood of being healthy when you travel. Saying no to some social events gives you a better chance of showing up healthy for Christmas and New Year.

  • Skip the office party! Noisy parties, especially indoors, are the worst possible environment for transmission. People talking and singing loudly greatly increases transmission risk.
  • If you are the one planning the party, consider postponing it until after the holidays rather than having it in the days before people are likely to be travelling around the country.
  • If you decide to go ahead, make sure your party is outdoors, and provide lots of non-alcoholic drink options; the influence of alcohol could increase the likelihood of risky behaviour. (Make sure you also provide plenty of shade, water, and sunscreen, hospitals won’t have the capacity to deal with sunstroke or alcohol-related incidents this summer!)
  • Prioritise! Limit yourself to one meet-up per week, then, if someone is infected there’s a higher chance you will all be able to find out about it and self-isolate before passing it on.
  • Use your contact tracer app to record any time spent with friends and family in any environment.
  • Shop locally, but online. The virus loves a cold, dry, air-conditioned mall environment.
  • Wear a mask anywhere there is a crowd, even when you’re outside.
Toby Morris

Have a plan to limit the risk of your summer holiday.

The best thing you can do to protect yourself, and the communities you plan to visit this summer is to get vaccinated. If you experience a breakthrough infection, vaccination approximately halves the chance that you will transmit the virus to someone else. So, even if you aren’t worried about getting Covid for your own sake (though you really should be!) you should still get vaccinated for other people.

Be mindful that fewer symptoms can make it harder to detect cases – you might only get mild symptoms or none at all. This means it’s still vitally important to get tested even if your symptoms are mild.

As so clearly outlined by The Spinoff’s Leonie Hayden, most of the most popular places that New Zealanders visit over summer are more remote than the cities we live in. Many of the people who live in these destinations haven’t had the easy access to vaccination that those living in bigger cities have benefited from. Nearly a third of Northland’s eligible population is unvaccinated, the East Cape is only 65% fully vaccinated, and parts of the Coromandel Peninsula are also sitting well under ideal vaccination rates.

These places also have fewer testing facilities, which could mean outbreaks become harder to detect and manage. Many rural communities aren’t connected to town supply, so wastewater testing won’t be as useful. Emergency medical attention is harder to access in these places, even when it’s not the peak of summer. Many residents in these remote towns, including iwi leadership, are asking holiday makers to not visit this summer, regardless of vaccination status. Māori who are already disproportionately represented in our COVID-19 statistics, have a high proportion of their population who can’t be vaccinated due to age. By travelling to areas with low vaccination rates in the Māori population we risk compounding this tragedy in areas where the health services would not be able to cope with the level of illness.

Finally, if after weighing all of these factors, you still choose to go on holiday, before you leave, have a plan for what you’ll do if someone develops cold or Covid-like symptoms while you are away from your usual health support systems.

Questions to ask before you go:

  • Where is the closest testing centre? When is it open?
  • What will you do while you wait for test results? (This might take several days.)
  • Will it be possible for you to self-isolate while you wait for a test result if you have symptoms?
  • Where is the closest medical centre? Do they operate after hours? Is there an ambulance service? How far is it to the closest hospital, and how will you get there?
  • Is there good phone reception? If not, what will you do in a health emergency?
  • Over Christmas lots of families join up, which can mean more crowded accommodation and increased risk of spread when people are indoors. How will you manage an outbreak in your holiday accommodation?
  • What is the ventilation like where you plan to stay? Is there good airflow

Campers should take extra precautions when using shared facilities in camping grounds. Wear a mask when inside shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, and have your own cleaning and hygiene products with you. Keep good social distance wherever possible, and minimise contact with people you don’t know.

Christmas family meet ups can also mean more interactions between older family members who are more vulnerable and younger people, who are more mobile and more likely to be infected. How will you keep your elders safe?

Have you packed your Covid-19 home management kit? A group of Covid survivors have put together a helpful list of things you might need.

Te matatini o te hōrapa: a population based contagion network for Aotearoa NZ, is a Health Research Council-funded project in response to Covid-19 led by Dr Dion O’Neale (Department of Physics, University of Auckland) and Dr Emily Harvey (senior researcher, Market Economics). They are joined by the deputy director of the Healthier Lives National Science Challenge, Andrew Sporle (Ngāti Apa, Rangitane, Te Rarawa), Dr Steven Turnbull (Research Fellow, Auckland University) and freelance science communicator Kylie Stewart. O’Neale, Harvey, and Turnbull are members of the Te Pūnaha Matatini Covid-19 modelling team.

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