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The BulletinMay 29, 2024

Why Covid-19 is back in the headlines

A vaccination centre with yellow stripes

A new variant, a rise in cases, and a reminder to get vaccinated. Yep, we’re talking about Covid-19 again, writes Stewart Sowman-Lund in this extract from The Bulletin. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

It’s been a while since Covid-19 was routinely in the news, and certainly a while since it’s been covered in depth by The Bulletin. But this week has seen the reappearance of headlines about the virus, as cold weather coupled with a spike in case numbers prompted a reminder from health experts to keep on top of vaccinations. Stuff has the key details here, showing the level of Covid-19 detected in wastewater for the week ending May 19 was twice as high as the week before – and the highest level detected since the end of 2022. Epidemiologist Michael Baker told RNZ’s First Up that hospitalisations were also surging. “We’re up to about 35 people a day going to hospital with this infection,” he said. In January, health minister Shane Reti confirmed free Rat tests would be available until the end of June, but with Covid restrictions no longer in place, people are no longer testing as diligently as they may have earlier in the pandemic. Millions of expired tests were disposed of late last year.

A new variant

With news of an uptick in cases comes questions over a new variant of the virus –  “FLiRT”. Despite its name, there’s nothing appealing about FLiRT, as this piece from The Conversation explains. In short, the new variant is related to the highly infectious Omicron strain, which is the most dominant variant in many parts of the world. There is early, and not peer-reviewed, evidence that FLiRT may be better at evading immunity, and it could be even more transmissible than its predecessors as well. However, there’s no evidence it makes you sicker than other variants. Canterbury University professor Michael Plank told RNZ’s Checkpoint that the arrival of FLiRT and the rise in cases was bad timing as we head into winter, and recommended people get a booster vaccination.

Why can’t we all get a booster?

At the start of the month, the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan reported that Pharmac and Health NZ were considering the future direction of Covid-19 vaccinations and treatments in New Zealand, though no changes were imminent. We may hear more about this in Thursday’s budget. But one question I often hear is why younger people are still unable to access Covid boosters – even at a cost – as this 1News report notes. Under the current eligibility criteria, only those over 30 can receive an annual Covid booster (with some exceptions), which puts us at odds with countries like Australia that allow 12-monthly jabs for anyone over 18. A Pharmac spokesperson told The Bulletin that the agency currently has no plans to adjust the eligibility criteria, but did not respond to a follow-up question asking why.

What about long Covid?

Covid often cracks back into the news fleetingly when there’s a rise in cases or a new variant but for sufferers of long Covid, the after effects of the virus linger. Michael Baker described the dominant symptoms of long Covid as “fatigue and brain fog” in an interview with RNZ, adding there was also evidence of it causing heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. Newsroom’s Marc Daalder has reported extensively on the condition, including this 2022 long read that describes in stark detail the experience of living with long Covid, along with the effort to get help. RNZ’s Jemima Huston has also produced in-depth reports into living with the condition, like this from late 2023. While these reports illustrate the individual impact of long Covid, there’s so far been little in the way of action from the government, as outlined in this report by Daalder from April. New research on Covid-19 more broadly was released by the University of Otago. It urged increased use of face masks as one method of preventing people from developing long Covid – and staying safe from respiratory illnesses in general. Remember Bird Flu?

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