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Stopping the spread

Drop in flu-like symptoms due to Covid-inspired behavioural changes.

Hauora Tairawhiti’s chief executive says community behavioural changes adopted during Covid-19 provide “a wonderful opportunity” to avoid high peaks of flu during future winters.

Jim Green showed Hauora Tairawhiti board members a FluTracking graph — a voluntary online health surveillance system which records reported instances of Influenza-Like Illness (ILI) symptoms in New Zealand.

It shows a significantly reduced number of reported symptoms from February to August.

In his written report for the board, Mr Green said: “Imagine what a difference there should be in the community if the graph of flu tracking looked like this each year.

“We will hopefully not be repeating a lockdown at the start of winter next year but the changed behaviours around spreading of respiratory viruses — cough-and-sneeze etiquette, hand-washing, staying at home and mask-wearing — should mean we do not reach the peaks in influenza and other viruses spread next winter.

“This will have a benefit on the community, businesses and the health system.”

Mr Green told board members it had always been known people coughing and sneezing was a way to spread viruses.

“But we now know that if you make a concerted effort to avoid people coughing and sneezing, you make a massive impact in terms of improved outcomes for the community.

“Why wouldn’t we do it again?”

Next winter the community should be told to stay home if they had coughs and flu, he said.

Borders might not be closed but “we will be much better at stopping the transmission of those viruses”.

Wearing masks in public would be more common next winter, he said.

“That will be a good thing because we will reduce transmission.”

‘Amazing’ opportunity to change course of winters

Practising good hygiene such as washing hands and keeping hands away from mouths should be continued.

“The days of going to a GP and sitting in the waiting room with a whole bunch of other people who are coughing and sneezing are long gone.”

Board chairwoman Kim Ngarimu said Hauora Tairawhiti could do things systemically, but it was “actually about how we behave in the community”.

“If we can keep a heightened level of awareness around good public health practices in the lead-up to winter, hopefully we might be able to get another graph similar to this (referring to the Flu-Tracking graph).

Mr Green said there would be a strong vaccination programme next year.

“We have a real opportunity to change the course of winters in this country for ever. That would be amazing.”

Mr Green said acute admissions at Gisborne Hospital in the first two months of the new financial year (July and August) were down by 9.3 percent. It was possible there was still “a hangover” from Covid-19. Child admissions were down by 57 percent.

“That is an amazing statistic. It would be great if we could carry that on as we want kids to be managed at home with their conditions and not have to come into hospital.

“If we can lock in a 9 percent reduction in the need for hospital beds each year, we can release resources to be utilised elsewhere in the health system where they can generate more value for the population.”

Mr Green reported that August admissions in adult medicine were down by 6.8 percent.

“Against the trend, acute admissions are up 19.5 percent in general surgery and 15.6 percent in orthopaedics.” Acute admissions in July/August were at their lowest in four years.

“The trend is definitely down in these months.”

Mr Green told the board Covid-19 appeared to be having a positive impact on recruiting. A large number of people, including New Zealanders, were applying for anaesthetist positions.

“The world has changed, primarily through Kiwis not going overseas, and our reputation as a country makes us an attractive place to come to from the UK or the United States.”

RESULT WORTH REPEATING: This graph, presented to the Hauora Tairawhiti board, is the Ministry of Health FluTracking map from (at bottom) the week ending February 16, 2020 through to the week ending August 16, 2020, and compares reports of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) to the comparable weeks in 2018 and 2019. It shows the number of respondents reporting ILIs to be around 1.5 to nearly 0 percent. Across the country, 52,528 respondents took part in FluTracking in the week ending August 16. The latest flu-tracking data, for the week ending October 11, shows 145 Gisborne residents taking part in FluTracking and none of them reported ILIs. FLuTracking can be found on bit.ly/3j11vKY Graph supplied