As winter draws close, it comes with a spike in the seasonal flus and colds. And, as the global pandemic continues, there is now the added risk of Covid-19.
While New Zealand has managed to contain the virus at the border, the risk of catching it is not zero; this winter in the Northern Hemisphere showed there was a spike in numbers over the colder months — at its peak one in fifty people living in the United Kingdom were infected with Covid-19.
Kurt Krause is an infectious diseases physician and professor of biochemistry at the University of Otago in Dunedin. He says research over the years has shown that some viruses are happier in cold temperatures.
But, he says it is equally true that in winter, people tended to be in heated rooms with large numbers of people in sometimes poor air circulation.
“If you are in a closed room over winter, that means the air you are breathing is air that somebody else is breathing out and if they have a respiratory virus, what they are breathing out, you are breathing in.”
Like your seasonal flu and cold, the World Health Organisation says Covid-19 is spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks.
Fortunately, as we all head indoors for winter, Covid-19 has been contained at the New Zealand border. But, the risk is not zero.
“The thing about Covid is it is so unpredictable,” Krause says.
“Right now we are in a very good position because we don’t have any community transmission, but with these variants of concern that are circulating throughout the world ... if there is a breakdown at the border then there is potential for spread.”
Health experts say keeping safe involves the usual health measures of good hand hygiene, social distancing, wearing a mask, clean surfaces, fresh airflow and staying in a warm, dry home.
Andrew Caseley, head of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, says there are ways to keep the cost of heating your home down.
“With so many heat pumps, the key thing is to maintain it, clean the filter regularly and keep the temperature between 18 and 21 degrees.
“You don’t need to run it all day, just half an hour before you need it.”
For low-income earners and beneficiaries, there is an automatic winter energy payment of up to $31.82 a week that Work and Income New Zealand automatically pays out.
For low-income home owners, there is also the Warmer Kiwi Homes programmes that provides a subsidy for insulation and effective heating options.
Outside of that there are ways to improve the heat of your home while keeping the cold air out without needing to spend more.
Carla Gee is the leader of housing quality initiatives at EcoMatters Environment Trust.
She says this involves looking at perhaps heating just one room in the house, and finding ways to block out the cold air that seeps in under doors.
One crucial thing she says is to improve the airflow inside the home. Opening the windows wide for as little as twenty minutes it allows all the cold wet air out and brings in dry cold air.
“It goes against the grain in winter to think about opening all of your windows,” she says.
“But it is really important. There are so many things that push moisture into the air.
“In New Zealand, we suffer from really high rates of asthma and respiratory problems and one of the ways we can actually get rid of that is by creating warm dry homes to be living in.”