Reopening too soon will reverse the downward trend in Covid case numbers, epidemiologist warns

Reopening too soon will reverse the downward trend in Covid case numbers, epidemiologist warns

If Irish society re-opens at the end of January, we will undo any good work in stopping the spread of the virus in recent weeks, a top epidemiologist has warned. Picture: Stephen Collins / Collins Photos

If Irish society re-opens at the end of January, we will undo any good work in stopping the spread of the virus in recent weeks, a top epidemiologist has warned.

The current level 5 restrictions are in place until January 31, although Government ministers have indicated certain sectors may remain shut beyond that time.

Patricia Kearney, a professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCC, said:

It is really important that we don’t re-open too soon. If we re-open in late January, we will be back where we were. We need to be realistic about what lies ahead.” 

She is cautiously optimistic the case-numbers are reducing now due to the restrictions.

“It is not going to be easy this time. Before Christmas we had one of the lowest rates in Europe and look at how quickly that changed."

Prof Kearney has previously been critical of Ireland’s polices for arriving travellers.

Australia has maintained strict border controls and quarantine between states as their vaccine roll-out begins. She said this is a good example of what Ireland could do now.

On Tuesday, the Government tightened restrictions and now requires a negative test result from all arrivals but have not imposed mandatory quarantine.

Prof Kearney said: “We know somebody can have a negative PCR test but be incubating the disease. It is better than nothing but it is not enough. We need a more robust approach.” 

And she warned people who have a negative test may be inappropriately reassured and feel free to move around. This makes it harder for public health specialists to track where outbreaks start, she said.

This warning comes as Health Minister Stephen Donnelly told Newstalk yesterday that things will get worse before they get better.

He said: “The case numbers are going down and the lead indictors are heading in the right direction but there is a lag between when people get infected and when you get sick and hospitalised.” 

Mortality levels in general have risen this month, as tracked by UCC economics lecturer Seamus Coffey.

He uses data from the public website Rip.ie which does not differentiate on causes of death.

Yesterday, he said: “There has been a noticeable increase in the level of notices posted by funeral directors to RIP.ie in recent days.

“As of January 12, the seven-day average is around 15% higher than the average of the previous four years.” 

Graphs he shared on Twitter show a clear difference in the figures.

Mr Coffey cautioned: “We don’t have good real-time information on mortality registration in Ireland. RIP has proven to be a useful proxy.” 

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan has cautioned any improvement in case numbers will take time to have effect.

He said: 

"While we are seeing the first glimmer of hope in respect of our daily case figures and positivity rates, the situation in hospitals and ICUs around the country continues to worsen day on day.” 

Doctors, including Cork infectious diseases consultant Dr Arthur Jackson, have said it can take up to two weeks after a symptoms appear before someone is ill enough to need hospital care.

Case numbers dipped slightly over recent days, as the system caught up with an extremely high number of unreported cases. But they are still higher than at the April peak.

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