Health urges for COVID-safe protocol adherence as jury still out on Omicron variant

Fiji’s Ministry of Health says if findings are true that the Omicron variant is indeed more transmissible than Delta, then the virus making its way into the country cannot be avoided.

However, until more concrete findings are acquired to determine its transmissibility, severity and effectiveness of current treatment and tests against the variant, strict adherence to COVID-safe measures that we have been following to date including getting vaccinated once one is eligible is the safest for all Fijians.

In their latest update the ministry noted that South Africa and nearby regions are poorly vaccinated compared to Fiji, making them more susceptible, irrespective of the COVID-19 variant, and subsequently increased hospitalisation numbers and severity of cases, as the case has been.

“In this instance the current steps we are taking do not change; we work on better positioning ourselves to deal with a third wave, irrespective of whether it is through Omicron or the current Delta variant that is endemic to Fiji,” the ministry said.

“This new variant is a reminder that for as long as there is a pandemic, Fiji will continue to face a threat from the virus and its variants. If transmissible enough, stringent border and community measures will only delay the inevitable entry and spread of current and future variants of the COVID 19 Virus.

“Fiji citizens will only be safe if we remain COVID-safe with 2-meter physical distancing; mask wisely by carrying a mask when you out of your home and wear the mask properly in public indoor spaces, public service vehicles, and outdoor crowded spaces; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue, and get vaccinated when it’s your turn.”

Having reviewed findings released by international experts on the Omicron variant, the ministry noted:

Transmissibility: It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta. There is some reported field evidence of increased transmissibility in South Africa however epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors. The public is advised that if indeed the virus is more transmissible than delta, then it will be inevitable that it gets to Fiji. In this instance the current steps we are taking do not change; we work on better positioning ourselves to deal with a third wave, irrespective of whether it is through Omicron or the current Delta variant that is endemic to Fiji.

Effectiveness of vaccines: While there is ongoing effort to understand the impact of this variant on vaccines, it is important to understand that vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death. It should be noted that South African states are poorly vaccinated compared to Fiji, and all our COVID safe measures are proven to work in reducing transmission especially within a highly vaccinated population. We are continuing our efforts to vaccinate all our children 12 to 17 years and providing booster doses to front liners and vulnerable persons.

The severity of disease: There is preliminary data suggesting increased rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection with Omicron.  South Africa and the nearby region is a poorly vaccinated region and an increase in transmission of COVID 19, whatever the variant, will result in an increase in the number of hospitalization. Understanding the impact of the Omicron variant on disease severity, especially in the vulnerable, will take days to several weeks.

Effectiveness of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection: There are early data to suggest that people who have previously had COVID-19 could become re-infected more easily with Omicron, as compared to other variants of concern, but the information is limited. More information on this will become available in the coming days and weeks.

Effectiveness of current tests: The PCR tests used in Fiji continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron. Concerns on the impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests remain under study.

Effectiveness of current treatments:   Standard treatments (including Corticosteroids) that we have in Fiji will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in line with findings and WHO advise, the ministry says it “is continuing to improve public health and medical capacities to manage an increase in cases.”

As such the ministry says remodeling of the health service provision will continue its current focus on:

  • Community surveillance through test trace and track protocols is being escalated to help us identify and contain any outbreak early.
  • Registration and line listing of vulnerable persons especially in poorly vaccinated areas has been done;
  • Preparations for the monitoring of positive cases and vulnerable persons to ensure better access to appropriate care plans has been made;
  • Clinical care protocols for the severe disease has been reviewed and strengthened;
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