The regional Department of Public Health that covers Dublin and surrounding counties needs extra resources immediately or Covid-19 will “overtake” the population.
This is according to one of the country’s leading public health consultants, Dr Anne Dee.
She made the warning after it emerged resources are to be diverted to 1,500 staff at the country’s 11 Contact Tracing Centres (CTCs) to enable them to investigate the source of Covid-19 outbreaks.
It is work already carried out by highly specialised contact tracing teams in the country’s eight regional Departments of Public health.
“CTCs do a great job, as call centres go,” Dr Dee, who is also an Irish Medical Organisation public health committee member, told the Irish Examiner.
“They are excellent for calling non-complex cases and provide good support to the work of Public Health Departments.
“They read from scripts but they lack skills for more nuanced disease detective work necessary to identify sources.
“And they are not qualified to do complex contact tracing work that we have been doing for decades.
“As things stand at the moment, they refer any complicated cases back to the Department of Public Health.
“These would be all cases or contacts in workplaces, schools, nursing homes, meat factories, hospitals, and crèches.
“In following up these complex situations Public health Departments usually identify many more contacts.”
The move to divert more resources to CTCs comes after the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) said Public Health Specialists can’t do the work.
Public Health Specialists insist that not only can they do the work but they have been doing it since the start of the pandemic.
They also say the claim by NPHET that they can’t track infection is based on concerns about the ability of the Department of Public Health East.
This covers Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow, some of the worst Covid-19 hit countries in Ireland.
Despite having 1.5 million people in its catchment area, the eight or so Public Health Specialists who work in the region have very few support staff.
“It is not correct to say we can’t track the source of Covid-19 outbreaks,” said Dr Dee.
“We can and we do, in the regional Public Health Departments, where we are slightly better resourced relative to our population areas.
“Unfortunately, in the East region, the resources in the department are tiny relative to the population.
“Because of this, that department has had to depend completely on the national Contact tracing Centre.
“The problem will not be solved by only expanding the CTC, we need to resource Public Health adequately in this region, or watch Covid overtake the population of Dublin.
“This is a demoralising situation for colleagues across the country, but particularly in the East.
“This is especially the case as someone else is instead being given the resources to do what they could do much better”.
“And it begs the question: why not just give the East department the money and resources it needs?” She added: “It is shocking to realise the extent to which people running this pandemic do not understand what we do.
“It is also very annoying to hear that someone who has been trained to speak to people from a call centre, reading from a script, will suddenly be considered able to perform our jobs.” NPHET has reportedly sent a letter to the government saying it can’t track the source of infections.
That follows comments made two weeks ago by the chair NPHET’s Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group.
Professor Philip Nolan said, during an exchange on Twitter, that Public Health Specialists don’t have the time or resources to track down the source of Covid-19 infections.
He said: “Our colleagues in public health would track down the source if they had the resources to do so, but they don’t.” Both the HSE and the Department of Health were asked to explain why, instead of giving extra resources to the Contact Tracing Centres to track sources of infection, extra resources can't be given to the regional Public Health Specialists who already do this "detective work".
They have not yet responded.