Exclusive: Rural hospitals bracing for summer tourists

William Terite, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Dec 2021, 5:00AM
(Photo / File)
(Photo / File)

Exclusive: Rural hospitals bracing for summer tourists

William Terite, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Dec 2021, 5:00AM

Rural hospitals are gearing up for increased demand this summer as domestic tourism is expected to heat up and people flock to tourist hotspots.

From December 15, Aucklanders who are fully vaccinated or test negative 72 hours before departure will be able to leave the city.
The rule will be in place from then to January 17.
Rural General Practice Network Chief Executive Grant Davidson said rural hospitals are moving quickly to get Covid-procedures in place.
"Obviously they're approaching it with some trepidation because there are so many unknowns, certainly the rural hospitals in major tourism areas are particularly concerned."
Davidson warned Kiwis of potential delays to treatment if they have Covid-19 while on holiday this summer in rural locations.
"Rural hospitals are not really geared up to deal with patients who have Covid-19."
He said Covid-infected tourists who show up at a rural hospital will likely be transferred to a base hospital, which could be several hours away.
"people travelling in rural regions need to be prepared for not being able to have immediate care."
Davidson said it leaves locals in rural areas potentially vulnerable, as local health services may end up dealing more with Covid-infected tourists.  
"Locals who are sick or injured may end up having to go home to seek treatment."
University of Auckland Microbiologist Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles said people should consider holding off from travelling this summer.
"The places that people want to go on holiday -- are places that generally have lower vaccination levels -- and don't have the capacity to look after people who would be sick with Covid-19."
Wiles said it's important to remember that vaccinated people can still contract and spread the virus to a lesser extent too.  
"Not everybody who has been vaccinated has mounted a really good immune response -- so they shouldn't be thinking of themselves as bulletproof."
Wiles said Kiwis need to be thinking more about the long-term gains.
"The longer we can hold off on doing these things [going on holiday] the more chance it gives the rest of the country to get its vaccination rates up."
Northland is a popular summer destination abundant with coastal walks and beaches.
About 50,000 Aucklanders are expected to descend upon the sun-soaked region, according to Northland iwi Ngātiwai. However, with only 77 per cent of the region fully vaccinated and Maori only 64 per cent fully inoculated, Ngātiwai is concerned the region won't be able to cope with a potential influx of Covid-infected tourists.
Ngātiwai Trust Board Chief Executive Officer Huana Lyndon said they are worried they don't have the capacity to deal with potential outbreaks.
"The local iwi has been united along with the District Health Board about raising concerns over the lifting of the borders, with a hospital already at 98 per cent occupied."
Police will have operational discretion once Auckland's border lifts and will conduct spot checks, with those who break the rules set to face a $1000 fine.
The Government has already confirmed Police will work with iwi at the northern boundary, so people there have confidence checks are in place to keep people safe.
But Lyndon argues it's still going to be hard trying to keep Covid out.
"We need strong monitoring in place, not just spot checks, we need to  be assured that those who are coming north have a negative test or are fully vaccinated."
Meanwhile, another iwi group has reportedly written to the Government outlining its plans to block off the Bay of Islands to visitors over the summer period.
Tourism operators say such roadblocks would have a huge economic impact.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern insists travellers who follow the rules will still be able to travel.
"People have the legal right to move and will be able to do so."
Western Bay of Plenty Mayor Garry Webber hopes people will do the right thing this summer and follow the Government's Covid requirements when visiting his region.
He said while he's happy to roll out the welcome mat for those who follow the rules, he's not keen on doing so for those who flout the restrictions.
Webber expressed concerns about Covid-infected tourists potentially swarming popular Waihi Beach.
"The population around Waihi Beach over summer is expected to jump to around 20,000 people, so I think it will put pressure on our local health services."
Despite an overall fully jabbed vaccination rate of 81 per cent in the Bay of Plenty, Webber said he's more concerned about smaller communities in the region: "When you look at many of our rural towns' vaccination rates, they aren't as high as we want them to be."
Webber said people also need to fully consider whether it's worth travelling during the holiday period: "Please follow the Government guidelines, and if in doubt stay at home."
Rotorua is another go-to destination over the summer for Kiwis looking to tap into their adventurous spirit.
Mayor Steve Chadwick is confident local health services will be able to keep Covid-19 at bay during the holiday period.
"The DHB and the community have a plan in place, so I believe we'll manage".

Chadwick remains upbeat about the holiday period, with 79 per cent of Lakes DHB fully vaccinated: "I think we need to be level-headed -- not panic -- and take a precautionary approach."