Covid news held back – Mayors rebel against orchestrated releases

Updated with Waikato DHB comments received after we went to press (see at end):

A Waipā district councillor says she and other councillors were told to keep quiet for more than a day when Covid was detected in Te Awamutu’s wastewater so health authorities could put a communications package together.

Hazel Barnes

Hazel Barnes of Kihikihi said she was so scared she did not step outside her gate for fear she might come across the “poor people” who were carrying Covid.

Her admission comes after Ōtorohanga mayor Max Baxter said he broke ranks over the weekend and released details of two cases in the district because his community needed to know.

Barnes says she wishes now she had done the same thing.

“We were asked not to speak about it, so I didn’t for nearly 48 hours.”

She criticised the poor relationship between the council and Waikato District Health Board (DHB) which should have reached out to district councils a lot earlier in the pandemic.

“We know our communities. People have a right to know. You’ve got to be honest and open about it.”

The DHB reported yesterday there were 35 cases in Te Awamutu/Kihikihi, two in Ōtorohanga and three in Cambridge/Karāpiro.

Max Baxter

Waipā continued to lead the way in the Waikato with first vaccination rates of 89.3 per cent and 71.8 per cent fully vaccinated.

For Waipā to get out of lockdown, and into orange, the Waikato DHB region of 435,690 people over 21,000 square kilometres, and every one of the other 19 DHBS, have to be 90 per cent vaccinated by the end of November.

Baxter also highlighted issues with the dissemination of information about the pandemic. Without his intervention on Sunday, the community would have waited until the Ministry of Health’s 1pm stand up on Monday, he said.

Baxter said he was being told there were cases linked to the Te Awamutu cluster an hour after the ministry’s stand up.

“I had to do a lot more digging myself. They were talking about opening a testing centre in town.”

He rang Waikato District Health Board chief executive Kevin Snee and one of his colleagues confirmed the cases.

It was Baxter and not the DHB which first reported there were two positive results in Ōtorohanga.

Jim Mylchreest

Waipā mayor Jim Mylchreest suggested Waikato DHB was keeping his community in the dark.

“We weren’t getting any updates other than the daily ones the media were getting.”

The tip off about a Covid case in Cambridge earlier this month came via Civil Defence and not the DHB, he said.

It was a similar case with reports of Covid in Te Awamutu’s wastewater.

The government’s decision not to make the latest Covid outbreaks a national emergency meant it was being run by the Ministry of Health and district health boards without community involvement.

“Local government knows their communities,” he said.

The timing of releases about Covid have not been entirely “user-friendly.”

Waikato DHB responds:

What issues have district councils raised with the board about Covid communication?

The district councils have not raised any issues with the commissioners about COVID-19 communications.

Waikato DHB provides daily updates to all mayors and other local government officials throughout the Waikato region. Mayors also have the option to connect with senior DHB staff directly and through their own offices.

Senior representatives of local councils are on the Regional Leadership Group which meets several times each week and includes DHB staff and other agencies. At these meetings the latest intelligence is shared on the COVID-19 response plus plans and intentions for the vaccination programme. It is then the role of those representatives to update their respective mayors or any others.

The DHB also works with councils to support the setting up of vaccination and testing sites in their localities. It is not possible for the DHB to conduct the vaccination and testing programme without constant engagement with local councils. This is often operational work and therefore we work directly with council staff who have regular interactions with the mayors.

What advice would it give to elected councillors who are told to keep quiet about Covid issues?

Does the DHB pass Covid information on with embargos to organisations?

Mayors, councillors and other council staff are not told to keep quiet about COVID-19 issues. We welcome and encourage the support of elected members in communicating helpful messages to their community. The DHB also does not share information with embargoes.

Council staff and mayors are given notice of any new cases or other information such as locations of interest in their respective areas.

Council members and Mayors are aware that cases are announced by the Ministry of Health at 1pm each day. From a practical perspective this enables DHBs and other providers to confirm pop-up testing locations and to conduct initial investigations into cases to confirm details such as any locations of interest which the public should be made aware of. For this reason it can detract from public health efforts if cases are announced before this additional, practical information that enables the community to take positive action in response to cases can be confirmed.

Councils and others who receive immediate case information are aware of this and of the Ministry’s 1pm daily briefings and it is their choice if they wish to share information before practical guidance such as contact tracing information or pop-up testing sites can be confirmed.

It is also important that health authorities remain the primary source of information on COVID-19 to ensure the public receives accurate information and any guidance is issued by those with appropriate qualifications and experience, such as public health officials.

We note that there have been several occasions when mayors have announced cases ahead of the Ministry of Health and prior to confirmation of testing or case information being available. Regardless of this, the DHB continues to provide those individuals with full access and immediate updates.

Why should information about Covid in Waipā be held back to suit 1pm announcements on television?

Wherever possible the DHB will issue announcements at a time which suits the reporting schedules of various media, however it is not always possible to adhere to media publishing or printing timelines as we respond to an immediate and fluid public health event.

For further information on the Ministry’s 1pm announcement scheduling you would need to refer questions to the Ministry.

What time was the information about the (Cambridge) marae and places of interest in Te Awamutu sent to the Waipā District Council last week?

Locations of interest are communicated to councils through a number of channels, often through direct conversations at an operational level in the first instance and via phone. We are therefore unable to confirm the precise time of the first notification to Waipā District Council.

The DHB does not have a board currently. Communications with the council will generally happen at an operational level in the first instance.

We will ask the team if they have a time and date when that was first mentioned to council staff.

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