Ireland’s chief medical officer has acknowledged that the country’s system of contact tracing for the coronavirus “is under strain” at present as a result of the exponential growth in nursing home outbreaks.
The news comes as Ireland recorded a further 25 deaths from the virus, 235 now in total, with a further 365 confirmed cases bringing the total across the country to 6,074.
The latest deaths figure is a 30% drop from the previous day’s figure of 36, suggesting that the much-feared exponential surge in the rate of people losing their lives has not yet materialised.
Speaking at the daily National Public Health Emergency Team briefing in Dublin, Dr Tony Holohan said that public health doctors involved in contact tracing are “quite correctly” prioritising the “more complex” cases that have seen clusters of the illness in nursing homes balloon in number by 51% in just three days.
Dr Holohan was reacting to the news that many patients have first heard of their positive test result for Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, from their GPs as opposed to the public health system which conducted the test, and thus have had no contact tracing initiated, thus calling into question the efficiency of the system.
He stressed, however, that “the important message” for those who have been tested is to “not wait for confirmation of that test, but to continue with isolation for 14 days after that test”.
There are currently 1,400 individuals working on contact tracing in Ireland, up from just 60 at the inception of the crisis, with plans in train to grow that number to 4,000.
Dr Holohan insisted that “testing capacity now is greater than the demand we have available”.
He acknowledged that “some of the testing we have done hasn’t happened in the timely way that we would have wanted”. While NPHET has said that waiting times for test results are between seven and 10 days, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people have been waiting a great deal longer.
He declined, however, once more, to put a figure on the numbers of people who are either waiting for a test or who have yet to receive the result of their own swabs, saying those numbers “are not important to concentrate on from a public health point of view”.
“The issue for us to concentrate on is how quickly in real time can we get tests that are done today reported back,” he said with regard to possible future relaxation of the current restrictions.
Dr Holohan discussed the situation in intensive care settings across Ireland at length, the status of which has not received a great deal of clarity in recent days. Along with the death rate, the ability of Ireland’s ICU system to handle high levels of patients is believed to be a key metric as to how the country is dealing with the pandemic.
He said that 227 of Ireland’s confirmed cases of coronavirus have to date been admitted to ICU, with 53 people discharged having recovered from the disease, while 147 people remain in intensive care at this time.
Total spare capacity for intensive care berths is 138, out of a pre-Covid-19 stock of 312, with a specially commissioned surge capacity available of over 800 beds, according to the HSE’s national director of operations Liam Woods.
Dr Holohan said that, of the 235 people who have died to date, just 27 have occurred in intensive care, with 141 happening elsewhere within the hospital's system. The median age of deaths meanwhile is 81, with the median age for cases in general static at 48.