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WELLINGTON (Reuters) – The New Zealand government on Thursday declared free face masks and rapid antigen tests as it attempts to stem the spread of COVID-19 and alleviate tension on the country’s health system which is managing a increase of COVID and flu patients.

There has been a huge leap in the quantity of new COVID cases in New Zealand in the recent weeks and officials are determining that this rush of Omicron may be worse than the first.

The country’s hospital system is now battling with increasing wait times and medical procedures having to be canceled.

New Zealand, home to 5.1 million residents, recorded 11,382 new recorded cases of COVID on Thursday, with a total of 68,737 as of now with the COVID-19. Of those 765 cases are at present in hospital.

A one-time poster child for battling the coronavirus, New Zealand’s quick response to the pandemic and its geographic isolation kept the country more or less COVID free until the end of last year. The government resigned its zero-COVID strategy recently once the majority of the population was vaccinated and the infection has been permitted to spread.

Verrall said while COVID-zero was now not possible he still expected people to wear a mask, to regularly test and to self isolate if they or somebody in their home tests positive to the infection.

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