Pandemic pro in town

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Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker was a guest speaker in Ashburton last week.

The go-to commentator on Covid-19 over the past nine months and an ardent advocate of stamping out rather than flattening the virus was in Ashburton last week as a guest speaker.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker spoke at an Advance Ashburton meeting and shared his knowledge and facts on the worldwide pandemic.

His mother Margaret was born and brought up in Ashburton and her father George Kelly was once the county clerk.

With his distinctive short silver hair and round black glasses, Prof Baker has become a very familiar face on television since the start of the virus.

He has 3000 media hits to his name over the past nine months and has stepped back from his university head of department duties for now because of his demanding new workload.

“I’ve been doing three, four or five interviews on some days and also talking to media overseas – just last week it was Kazakhstan television.”

Prof Baker says as a country New Zealand is managing the pandemic very well , but “can always do better”.

A combination of good leadership, community buy-in and listening to good science had been the key reasons for stopping the spread of the virus.

“We made the critical choice early to eliminate covid here, while the rest of the world elected to live with it.

“New Zealand’s approach has proven to be the right way and that’s why we are in the position we’re in now.”

Prof Baker is a member of Ministry of Health’s Pandemic Influenza Technical Advisory Group and from day one advocated for a lockdown of the country.

“It’s was lonely on the advisory group in the early days, but more public health professionals and business leaders soon saw that a lockdown was the right way to go.”

Prof Baker describes the order to stay at home as a “circuit breaker”, a term coined in Singapore, and the country from which New Zealand has based its alert levels.

“Lockdown is not about hurting people, but about shutting down the virus,” he says.

Prof Baker says now that the risks of Covid-19 are better understood and because there are variations around the world, it was time to “fine tune” alert levels.

He wanted people coming from countries with high infection rates to quarantine for a week in their own country before coming to New Zealand and completing quarantine here, while there could be less stringent rules for those coming from lower risk countries.

He said a vaccine for Covid-19 would happen and would work to some degree on most people, but would still need evaluation.

He was not contemplating overseas travel next year, but if the situation worldwide improved, would consider it in 2022.

Covid-19 was the most profound public health intervention in our history, and in terms of evolution, pandemics were increasing.

He urged against complacency and said evaluation and continuous learning was the way to go.

Prof Baker said it had now been proven that you could stop a pandemic at the border and that contact tracing worked.

New Zealand’s capacity to deal with pandemics had made massive advancements, he said.

By Mick Jensen