Bank holiday will test whether we can  suppress the virus ourselves

With Covid-19 things can go from bad to worse very quickly. We cannot take our eye off the ball. 
Bank holiday will test whether we can  suppress the virus ourselves
A passenger wearing a face mask on a Bus Éireann bus in Cork city.Picture: Denis Minihane

The greatest lesson from the inflated statistics for confirmed cases of coronavirus here in the past two days is that all of our worrying over the rights and wrongs of the Green List have distracted from a far greater problem — that we’ve started to take our eye off the ball in the community.

When it comes to Covid-19, things can get very bad very quickly. This is something Ireland as a population has experienced very recently, so we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Thursday evening’s figure of 85 new confirmed cases is the highest such figure seen for nearly 11 weeks. Just under 40% of that number resulted from close contacts of a confirmed case.

The 85 cases represent a 500% increase on the previous day’s figure of 14. Alarm bells immediately begin to ring. But of most interest is the nature of the cases, just two of which result from travel-related infections.

Members of the public wearing facemasks in Dublin. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Members of the public wearing facemasks in Dublin. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Some 26 of the new cases stem from Co Kildare — an outbreak at the Irish Dog Foods plant in Naas, Co Kildare, with those clusters further traceable to a direct provision centre in nearby Newbridge. The plant has now been closed with all affected workers in isolation while a deep clean takes place.

From that point of view the situation appears to be in hand. We are, after all, far better versed in how to manage the virus now than was the case in March as the numbers of those falling ill began to multiply at a rate of knots.

But that can’t distract from the fact that, as a nation, we are in a very dangerous place. In truth the warning signs were there. Just two days prior to Thursday 40 cases had been recorded, itself a 300% increase on the previous day.

What a difference a week makes - just seven days previously the acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn had told the National Public Health Emergency Team Thursday briefing that with the ongoing suppression of the virus we could be “uncertain but optimistic” for the future.

We’re not yet officially in second surge territory — the numbers are still a deal lower than those seen during the bad old days of late April with the country in full lockdown. But we’re not far off. For comparison, on March 10, two days before the schools and creches were shut, there were 10 new confirmed cases of the virus. Nine days later that figure was 191.

Improved testing regime

There are of course some differences between the two time periods — for starters there were certainly a far greater number of cases than that 191 at the time — the country’s testing regime still left much to be desired at that stage, with people waiting up to five weeks for their results.

Present testing capacity far outstrips what was available then, meaning that clusters and localised outbreaks are much easier to pin down.

The changes in the ways in which the virus is manifesting are best demonstrated by the drop in median age that has been seen consistently over the past two months. The majority of cases are now in the sub-45 years category. 

The virus is no longer killing people in large numbers. Hardly anyone is in hospital with a confirmed case (although the number of suspected cases in hospitals stood at 104 at 8pm on Thursday). And the young are now the primary driver of new cases, not the elderly.

Long-term pubs closure would be 'nasty political pill'

However, the other, more significant difference between now and when the initial surge was at its height is that we are no longer under lockdown. This suggests a number of potential eventualities should the numbers continue to deteriorate.

Firstly, the delayed entry to Phase Four of the Government’s roadmap to reopen the country, already pushed back until Aug 10, may end up being delayed indefinitely. That means no open pubs — a nasty political pill for the Government to swallow.

Secondly, you could see a situation where masks become a mandatory requirement when out in public.

And finally, while a second nationwide lockdown seems unlikely given the varied nature of the virus’s penetration geographically, localised lockdowns, as are currently being seen in Britain, begin to look more and more likely.

Whether or not that happens is entirely in the public’s hands. This bank holiday weekend will be an acid test as to whether we can be trusted to suppress the virus by ourselves.

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