The devastating situation involving Covid-19 outbreaks in nursing homes has been described as “a catastrophe in the making” and “a national emergency” as the death toll in institutions continues to mount.
While evidence is beginning to coalesce that the infection has been slowed significantly by the lockdown measures in place across the country since March 27, the situation has continued to snowball in nursing homes and residential institutions, with fully 65% of the 444 deaths noted thus far having originated in those situations.
Eight residents alone, out of nine deaths, died from the virus at the Maryborough Centre for Psychiatry of Old Age in Portlaoise across the recent bank holiday weekend.
Jack Lambert, professor of infectious diseases at the Mater Hospital in Dublin, said nursing homes “need to be a priority” and added that any under-utilised healthcare workers around the country need to be “sent to every single nursing home in Ireland”.
“It’s a huge disaster that’s led to over 200 clusters, so probably 50% of nursing homes have Covid in them - that’s a national emergency in my opinion,” he told RTE’s Today with Sean O’Rourke.
Such changes need to be done “yesterday” and nursing homes need to be a priority, he said.
At present, an agreement is in place between the HSE and trade unions allowing for the voluntary redeployment of healthcare workers from their current station to nursing homes only.
Roughly a third of the country’s 440 nursing homes have been affected by the crisis.
Professor Lambert insisted that a “lack of thought” had been put in place by the HSE and Department of Health regarding how the situation might have evolved in nursing homes, the majority of which are private and have no direct administrative input from State authorities.
It was not a question of hindsight, he said - preparations should have been in place. Instead, nursing homes had been told they were responsible for making their own plans.
Such institutions are especially vulnerable to a viral outbreak given the frequency with which residents are subject to hospital stays and the use of agency or casual staff who may move between facilities.
The situation has been exacerbated by staff being forced to isolate once the virus reaches their workplace - which has led to a marked shortage of suitable staff as the crisis moves towards its peak.
On the same programme, the Social Democrats co-leader Roisín Shortall said the issue was not helped by the fact that 80% of nursing homes in the country are private and not connected to the HSE.
HIQA had raised concerns about infection control in nursing homes in the past, she said.
The questions now were what protocols were in place, on what basis were decisions made and who makes those decisions.
The overriding issue is to get a swift test and tracing regime up and running, she said.
Nursing Homes Ireland had been one of the first agencies to move to a lockdown on visitors in early March, a move which was criticised at the time by chief medical officer Tony Holohan, who subsequently rowed back on that advice.
Meanwhile, the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Dr Cillian de Gascun, said that the crisis has highlighted issues that people were not aware of within the sector.
“I think the scale of the infection numbers in the nursing home setting was probably not something that was envisaged very early on,” he told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny show.
“It was not something that we had seen from the early stages of the pandemic in other countries, but it is certainly a priority now for the department and for the HSE.”
Meanwhile, responding to the growing crisis Pro Life Campaign spokesperson, Maeve O’Hanlon said, the fact that almost half of all deaths to date from Covid-19 in Ireland have occurred in nursing and residential homes "is a terrible indictment of our society".
“It is a futile exercise to indulge in a blame game now, but it is not a pointless exercise to highlight the shortcomings in order to salvage what can be salvaged in the coming months to protect the most vulnerable.
“The Government and National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) must be held more accountable for their actions. And that accountability needs to happen immediately. With each passing day more and more lives are being lost.
"No stone should be left unturned to assemble the expertise needed to protect the lives of our beautiful and beloved elder and dependent citizens, who deserve nothing but the very best care and protection from this State.”
- The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
- Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department - if this is not possible, phone 112 or 999 and in a medical emergency (if you have severe symptoms) phone 112 or 999