Close contacts of people with Covid-19 who do not have symptoms will no longer be referred for tests, as the testing system is unable to keep up with the volume of positive cases.
It comes as 1,620 new cases and 12 new deaths were confirmed yesterday, following two days of record highs. But case numbers are now rising so fast the system cannot record them accurately, according to Professor Philip Nolan, chair of the Nphet Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group.
“There are cases yet to be reported and we expect to see very high case counts over the coming week to 10 days," he said.
"So the actual epidemiological situation is somewhat worse than I have just outlined."
Prof Philip Nolan says current daily case numbers are an UNDER-estimate.— Richard Chambers (@newschambers) December 31, 2020
Some 4,000 extra cases to be fed in over the coming days.
Very difficult time ahead.pic.twitter.com/KQIzJ6emHb
The total death toll in Ireland since the pandemic began is now 2,237, and the cumulative total number of cases is 91,779.
The number of people in hospital has risen to 490, as have the numbers in ICU to 42. The critical measuring tool, the 14-day incidence rate, has risen again to 296.7.
Monaghan is now the county with the highest infection rate at 553.9. Limerick remains the worst affected county in Munster with a rate of 495.1.
However, Nphet has warned these numbers do not reflect the full seriousness of the situation as up to 4,000 positive results have not yet been entered into the reporting system, although they are being managed.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said: “The disease is now at the point where we don’t have the control, we have to ensure that the enormous resources we have built up for testing capacity is directed to the most effective and important actions.”
'It's clear we're not in a containment phase any longer', @CMOIreland says, as he sets out the rationale behind the decision to pause testing of close contacts. We are now in a mitigation phase in the fight against #Covid19, he says | https://t.co/pO7lVq2dTO pic.twitter.com/Wr7flWQMnf— RTÉ News (@rtenews) December 31, 2020
The HSE, in consultation with GPs, is now implementing a new temporary system for close contacts.
People who received a notification by SMS that they are a close contact should follow the existing public health guidance and restrict their movements for 14 days.
If they do become symptomatic, they can then arrange a test through their GP.
#NEW— Zara King (@ZaraKing) December 31, 2020
“It’s simply overrunning our entire capacity to respond”
- @CMOIreland says testing of close contacts are “containment activities” and symptomatic patients are “higher priority”.
Dr Holohan says it will be reinstated when disease is “back into control”.@VirginMediaNews pic.twitter.com/6e8OpQy3Oq
The HSE said over a 24-hour period on Wednesday, it processed over 26,000 swabs, while over 2,300 calls were made to people with a positive Covid-19 result and almost 11,000 calls were made to close contacts.
HSE clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said: “The pressure on our health system, including testing and tracing services, is not sustainable.”
There will be an “enormous disruptive effect” on hospitals as the number of cases rise, with wards and beds closed as well as an abrupt loss of staff who test positive or are contacts, he said.
Dr Henry praised staff who have worked so hard to keep hospitals and community settings free of the virus.
Four Cork hospitals will receive 2,000 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to give on the weekend, said Dr Henry. Staff at Cork University Hospital will receive further doses, and vaccinations will begin for staff at the South Infirmary, the Mercy and St Finbarr’s hospitals.
Weekly reports on the number of vaccinations completed will be published by the HSE once the programme rolls out more fully, a spokeswoman confirmed.
She said: “The new [IT] system is still being rolled out, but weekly reports will be made available.”
Data is currently being gathered on vaccinations carried out since Tuesday and will be published after being reviewed by officials with the HSE and Department of Health.
Meanwhile, the Government has reiterated its commitment to reopening schools on January 11.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin says schools will open on 11 January, saying, "public health has been consistent in saying that schools are safe places for our children." pic.twitter.com/2GRmJVsN7M— RTÉ News (@rtenews) December 30, 2020
Education minister Norma Foley said this delay gives families a chance to cut contacts to ensure the school environment is safe when they return. Nphet did not recommend delaying this reopening, she said.
Up until the Christmas holidays, three-quarters of all schools had no contact with public health teams, she said.