Waste Management's depot in East Tamaki, where the man was based. Photo: Fencerite

Employer support for isolating staff is critical, says the Director-General of Health, as the country braces for three stages of spread of Omicron.

The country’s biggest waste company has been accused of insisting an Omicron contact go to work this week, against health officials’ advice.

Newsroom understands the man and his wife were told they were contacts, because she worked with one of the people infected in the Auckland wedding cluster.

The man returned one negative test but was required to keep isolating at home until his Day 5 test – but instead his supervisor required him to go into work. The man worked most of Tuesday before the company agreed to let him go home, late in the afternoon.

Waste Management did not respond to Newsroom late Tuesday.

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall and Health Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield said they had not been briefed on any incident, which would be handled at a local public health level.

“We’re aware of the potential,” Verrall said, “which is why we provide financial support to businesses that have workers that need to isolate. And in addition, the plan we’ve described today in terms of supporting the critical workforce, that is important not just for critical industries but actually for industry as a whole, so that we don’t have widespread disruption throughout supply chains.”

Bloomfield added: “What’s been clear to me right throughout the outbreak is the incredible support that employers have provided by allowing their workers to isolate, and that’s a key reason why we have been able to control our outbreaks, including the previous highly infectious Delta variant.

“The local Medical Officer of Health does have powers,” he said. “And those powers include under the existing s70 notice that I’ve issued, that anyone is required to isolate for the period they are instructed to.”

It’s the latest glitch in health officials’ work to “stamp out” the Omicron cluster. Already, Newsroom has revealed that contact tracers were too slow to contact an Air NZ crew member and a Summerset retirement village kitchen worker; both continued working in high-risk environments for days before testing positive for Covid.

Verrall said contact tracers relied on being provided with full information about who they came in contact with. “That is subject to error, people might not remember it. It is not a perfect system, there is always a risk that people will not be identified.”

“Right from the beginning we’ve said the goal of the contact tracing system is to identify the majority of contacts, but it can’t always identify them all.”

The Summerset worker was of course on the list of wedding guests for January 15, and the Air NZ crew member was listed as working the flight on which the Nelson-Tasman family travelled on January 16.

Bloomfield said such difficulties had emerged in previous outbreaks, too. “Both those cases were identified and tested because they became symptomatic at around the same time or very quickly after our index cases had been found.

“So subsequently we were able to link the Air NZ worker with the flight that this family, who’d been to the wedding in Auckland, took back to Nelson. But actually the testing came in very close by.

“This is very often the case that you have more than one case appearing from an exposure event, separately, and then we make the link epidemiologicically.”

But the first member of the Nelson-Tasman family tested positive overnight Thursday last week, and was included in the Ministry of Health’s figures on Friday morning. 

No contact tracing approach was made to the Air NZ or Summerset workers in subsequent days.

In the Summerset case, for instance, the kitchen worker had attended the same wedding as the previous family, but did not know there were positive cases at the wedding until he was told by another wedding attendee late on Friday. He got tested, and on late Saturday was confirmed to be positive – nearly two days after officials learned of the cases at the wedding.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

Leave a comment