On the 15th of August 2023 the Government removed the final COVID-19 mandates, making the requirement for people to isolate for seven days if they tested positive for Covid-19, and the wearing of facemasks when visiting a healthcare or aged care facility no longer a legal requirement or able to be enforced. Public health officials decided to remove these last remaining Covid-19 mandates because it is considered that the risk from Covid-19 is now low compared to other times of the pandemic.
Covid is becoming endemic
While the pandemic emergency is over, the Covid-19 virus is here to stay and is becoming endemic – which means it is consistently present in our population, with a predictable rate and spread. When a virus is endemic it is considered to be mostly contained, not spreading out of control and not placing a burden on the healthcare system.
What the future holds
No-one can predict the future, but it is likely that case numbers of Covid will continue to rise and fall but not with the dramatic peaks of the past – and this will be influenced by factors such as the time of year, school holidays and whether any new virus variants emerge. At the moment, most of the New Zealand population has some form of immunity to Covid-19 either from being vaccinated, infected or both. However, a combination of waning immunity over time, and new variants appearing will mean that people will become susceptible again. In this way, Covid-19 still has the potential to cause a significant health burden.
Ministry of Health advice
The Ministry of Health advises that although the mandates have gone, people should consider staying at home for five days from Day Zero if they test positive for Covid-19. Day Zero is the day that symptoms start or a test for Covid-19 is positive.
Implications for healthcare settings and workplaces
Some healthcare facilities such as GP surgeries, pharmacies, hospitals (especially ED and intensive care), and resthomes may ask staff and/or visitors to wear a mask to protect the people at high risk of serious infection from Covid-19. Some facilities may require face masks to be worn as part of their Health and Safety policy or workplace risk assessments, and it would be advisable to respect and follow the decision of the healthcare facility.
It is likely that mask use will still be recommended in the following places:
- hospitals (including outpatient services)
- residential care
- GP surgeries
- ambulance services
- blood testing services
- dentists and other oral health providers
- allied health e.g. optometrists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists
- community, iwi providers.
Another impact the removal of the mandates will have is on employee’s sick leave. The Covid-19 leave support scheme that was set up to help employers pay employees who had to self-isolate because of Covid-19 also ended on 15 August. This means that now employees will need to use their sick leave if they can’t work because of Covid. The Public Service Commission advises that employers will need to provide sick leave in line with company employee agreements. If an employee has insufficient sick leave, the policies and practices of an employer’s discretionary sick leave will apply. If an employer requires proof of sickness, a confirmation text sent by Te Whatu Ora after reporting a RAT or PCR result can be used as proof.
The practices we learned from the pandemic remain a good way to stay infection-free of all viruses, not just Covid. Masks and hand sanitizer will still have a place in our lives for some time to come, even with the removal of the last mandates, as they help reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses. Staying home when sick, and respecting the mask policies of healthcare and workplace facilities will continue to be sensible options for slowing down the transmission of viruses in general and protect the vulnerable members of our community from serious illness.