Omicron in NZ aged care: what you need to know

As the Omicron variant of Covid-19 tears through aged care in Australia, it’s easy to lose sight of the basics. The news is currently full of stories about deaths in aged care, aged care staffing issues and how strained the entire system is.

Working through crises is nothing new for most people in healthcare, but Omicron’s impact is hard to ignore. For aged care facilities, it feels like ‘when’ not ‘if’ there will be an outbreak. This means we must ensure we’re prepared for when it happens.

A brief history of SARS-CoV-2

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in 2020, there have been five major variants declared by the WHO: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and the most recent, Omicron. Omicron was first reported in South Africa on 24 November 2021 and has quickly spread across the world. It spreads far more readily than previous variants, but typically presents with less severe symptoms. While this might sound like a positive, unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Isn’t Omicron milder than previous variants?

If Omicron is so much milder, you might be wondering why everything is in such a state of disarray. Just because a disease is less severe, it doesn’t mean that it’s nothing to worry about. While Omicron is milder than the Delta variant, it is still a dangerous virus that can significantly impact people.

Omicron still has the full spectrum of Covid presentation, from asymptomatic infection all the way through to severe disease and death. While more people are likely to have a milder infection with Omicron, the fact that so many more people have been infected increases the number of severe cases in the community. We have learned that people with underlying conditions, people with advanced age and people who are unvaccinated can have a severe form of COVID-19 from Omicron infection. While Omicron is typically milder, people are more likely to catch it and less likely to know when they have it. This means that they are mingling in the community and spreading it to others, who then spread it to others. Eventually these infections make their way into vulnerable populations, where there is a higher chance of serious consequences.

What does Omicron look like?

While most of you will be tested regularly with RATs to determine whether you have Covid, there are still some symptoms to look out for.

The initial symptoms linked with Covid, such as the loss of taste and fever, are less common in the Delta and Omicron variants. The Delta variant caused cold-like symptoms: runny nose, sore throat and persistent sneezing, along with headache and cough, particularly in people who had been vaccinated. Unvaccinated people generally had more severe symptoms. Omicron appears to be continuing the trend set by Delta. Its symptoms are much more like a regular cold, particularly in people who’ve been vaccinated, and  it’s causing fewer general systemic symptoms, such as nausea, muscle pains, diarrhoea and skin rashes.

Most of the general public will still be looking for the original Covid symptoms (like loss of taste) and may be ignoring Omicron symptoms as ‘just a cold’. Because of this, it’s important that staff in your facility know the symptoms for the current variants and act accordingly.

Managing an Omicron outbreak

When managing an Omicron coronavirus outbreak, the principles are the same as an influenza outbreak or any other outbreak situation. The key focus areas here should be preparedness and completeness.

Make sure that your COVID outbreak plan is up-to-date and appropriate for your facility. Every facility’s outbreak plan (COVID or otherwise) will be different, but it should reflect the needs of your facility. It should be reviewed frequently to ensure it incorporates the latest COVID management information from your state or national health departments.

Once you are sure that your plan is current and comprehensive, it’s crucial that staff know what it is and where they can find the information they need. Do your staff know where to access your plan? Can they access the materials the plan references (such as PPE and contact information for reporting purposes)? If you have the capacity, a mock outbreak drill will let you see where the gaps are. An outbreak should not be the first time you test your outbreak plan!

Above all, it’s crucial not to panic. While an Omicron outbreak is not ideal, aged care facilities are no strangers to outbreaks. The key to controlling and overcoming them is ensuring the proper steps are taken by everyone involved. Calm management is the only way.

As the Omicron variant is so transmissible, as soon as a person is thought to have COVID of any description, the person must be isolated and outbreak management strategies immediately put into place. It is better to be safe rather than sorry!

If you’re looking for help with Covid outbreak management, you can download our free Covid outbreak checklist here. If you stay ready, you don’t need to get ready.

If you’re looking for help with infection control or omicron in aged care, you can sign up for our free IPC newsletter or contact us with your IPC queries. With clinical staff with Covid outbreak experience, we’re here to help.