One town, and one doctor’s experience of a peaking pandemic. Jill Herron reports from Cromwell

You may want to put that mask back on and rethink the social calendar for a bit, if you live in Central Otago.

Cromwell doctor Greg White says 15 percent of the town’s approximately 8000 residents have either had Covid-19, or still have it. He says it’s not slowing down and his patients’ varied, lingering illnesses are very concerning.

“I don’t want to be scaremongering, but you know, it’s not scaremongering, it’s what we’re seeing every day. People just don’t seem to have a very good appreciation of the risk at the moment.”

Dr White, who is known for doing things his own way, moved his clinic outdoors when Omicron arrived in mid-February, to prevent staff being infected. He and his five-strong crew hold carpark clinics at 9am and 2pm, with new Covid cases turning up daily.

Numbers went up fast and stayed up in Cromwell, averaging between 230 to 330 active cases for many weeks, often representing more than half of all of Central Otago’s cases.

The team also undertakes daily monitoring of an array of patients recovering at home. Among those were a young mum on her third week of complete bed-rest, a young man with a two-month-long ear infection and two people with fresh re-infections a few weeks after fully recovering and testing negative.

With the rapidly growing town hugely popular with young families, classrooms provided opportunity for spread. One of Dr White’s staff reported 38 out of 40 in her child’s class testing positive, and pre-schools, primary and the local college have all been seriously impacted. From there, Dr White says, the virus infected many parents, then people in their workplaces and the general population.

Dealing with the virus was taking up the vast majority of staff time, he said, as considerable paperwork also had to be done, including reporting all the cases. This was something he said people frequently didn’t do, even when asked.

People didn’t want to believe the fact that they were equally at risk of catching Covid-19 from friends and family as they were from strangers, with indoor gatherings especially chancey.

“You don’t want to live in fear but I’m not going to be blasé about it. We are seeing very sick people every day, it’s not worth the risk at the moment. The more I read, the more bad things I find that this virus can do to your body, particularly your brain. You hear people say ‘might as well get it over with’. Well I wouldn’t want to voluntarily risk taking on a bit of brain damage for any reason.”

With Central Otago’s golden run of balmy autumn weather coming to an end and government Covid-19 restrictions easing at the same time, people were unmasking and heading indoors in cafes, private parties, shops, and sports venues – an alarming prospect, he says.

“I think this is just the beginning. People’s mentality may need to shift – there’s just no reason to think that it’s going away.”

Many people too, particularly the triple-vaccinated, had got through the illness fairly easily but he now fears for the elderly and believes the region “should not let its guard down”.

Wearing the best quality masks available and ensuring good ventilation were key.

“I’ve bought 10 air purifiers for the schools. This thing hangs in the air like cigar smoke – it’s very transmissible.”

Central Otago district Mayor Tim Cadogan says the region is still in the thick of things and particularly the elderly or vulnerable should be being “more meticulous than ever”.

“We are still in the grip of it here. Where other places are coming down off the peak, we look like we’re still heading toward it. As the figures show, Covid is as bad in Central Otago now as it has ever been.”

He said he was still wearing a mask where government regulations didn’t require him to do so, and he strongly recommended this to people.

The recording of more than 100 new cases a day for two consecutive days last week was a pandemic-high for the area.

“I think the best thing people can do, if they can do it, is stay at home. I’m not a doctor but if I was elderly or vulnerable I’d be staying home.”

Amy Neilson

Cromwell-based fitness and nutrition consultant Amy Neilson wishes she’d been more cautious. More than four weeks on from her infection, she spent much of Saturday morning being assessed at a medical centre with “sharp chest pains”.

Before contracting Covid-19, Amy’s rather glam life was packed with full-on fitness sessions, meetings and socialising in Queenstown and Cromwell.

Now she can only take gentle walks and reckons her physical and mental capacity is about 50 percent. The last time she recalls feeling this bad was when she contracted Dengue fever in Vietnam many years ago.

“It’s just blown my mind how tired I am. I can feel this thing in my lungs and I’m scared now, I’m afraid of working out.”

While she certainly still looks healthy and thoroughly Instagram-worthy in photos, Amy urges people not to judge the book by its cover. She’s lost two kilograms of muscle and even now, after so many have had Covid, she feels there’s a certain stigma and social anxiety that continues to hang around.

Dr White says his clinic learned more about the virus each week, in what he considers to still be “the early days of the pandemic”.

“It’s not like we can go back through and read the textbooks. We’re learning as we go.”

* Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund *

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