One of the country’s largest HSE contact tracing hubs has been stood down with reassurance that it will be ready to go at moment's notice if there is a second wave.
Professor Ivan Perry, the dean of public health at University College Cork (UCC), who helped the HSE establish the facility on the grounds of UCC, said the vital “fire-fighting” role played by staff at such centres during the pandemic should underline the need for more investment in public health infrastructure - the facilities, hardware and data systems needed to support the work of public health and infectious disease experts here.
“The people who worked in these centres were like firefighters. The fire has died down now but if another fire breaks out in the forest, we will be ready to go,” he said.
“We have been doing contact tracing for 100 years in this country but public health teams have been doing it from small overcrowded facilities.
“This pandemic has been predicted for decades. It was a question of when, rather than if it would happen.
“When things are going well, public health infrastructure becomes invisible, people forget about it.
“This might be the event that changes that and demonstrates the need to have more and better public health infrastructure.”
Shortly after Ireland’s first confirmed case of Covid-19 on February 29, the state’s contact tracing system was at risk of being overwhelmed.
Prof Perry, and other senior figures at UCC, worked with the HSE to establish a large contact tracing hub and call centre on the grounds of UCC to support the existing system.
It was one of nine such centres around the country.
Within days, computer labs in the basement of UCC’s Boole complex had been transformed into a call centre, linked in to the national contact tracing database.
Staff from across the public service volunteered to, and were trained to, work side-by-side with public health professionals making hundreds of calls a week to people with a confirmed diagnosis of Covid-19, to their contacts, and to contacts of contacts. Public health experts dealt with healthcare staff and the complex cluster cases.
They spoke to thousands of people over the last three months, and helped limit the spread of Covid-19. Their services are no longer required.
Prof Perry stressed that contact tracing work is continuing and the system can be scaled up again within a matter of hours, if required.
He also said studies will be conducted on the data they gathered over the last three months to identify learnings.