HSE: Contact tracing for a week before positive test result could cut untraceable cases in half

HSE: Contact tracing for a week before positive test result could cut untraceable cases in half

Dr Miriam Owens, Public Health Specialist: “We can’t do as much of this when numbers are high”. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Contact tracing people for seven days prior to their positive test result has the potential to reduce the number of untraceable cases by half, the HSE has said.

A briefing on the new ‘source’ tracing which goes live from today has heard that the 20% of cases which are currently marked ‘community tracing’, with no knowledge of how they materialised, can be reduced to 10% and better using the new method.

The HSE said that, in adopting the new approach, Ireland is on the “cutting edge” of tracing in using a method only adopted on a large scale in countries such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

“We hope this will lower numbers quite significantly,” Dr Miriam Owens, the HSE’s public health lead for Dublin north city and county said, adding that “we can’t do as much of this when numbers are high”.

Contact tracing lead Niamh O’Beirne explained that the new approach will not require additional manpower, and will be carried out within the current contact tracing workforce.

“It will basically lead to slightly longer phone calls,” she said.

In practice, contact tracing calls which up until now had traced activity for 48 hours prior to a positive result, will extend that time period to a full week, with additional questions being asked.

“Of course it will be the case that not everyone will have an exact recollection of everything they did going back seven days prior to symptoms,” said Dr Greg Martin, the clinical lead for the contact tracing programme.

“The hope is that people will recall significant events that they were at, with maybe a lot of people, that those will be remembered by them in the main. But it isn’t an exact science,” he said.”

“We do believe that if we do this right we are going to find additional cases and additional people who have been exposed.” Ms O’Beirne also gave an update on the use of antigen testing by the HSE, which is to see a pilot programme involving the use of such testing in educational facilities.

Antigen testing can provide a result after 15 minutes, as opposed to the general day-long experience for the overarching PCR testing programme. Recently, the HSE has trialled the use of such antigen tests on people receiving the PCR test at the same time with a view to gauging their efficacy.

Ms O’Beirne said that the pilot will be used to gauge what level of appropriate responsibility can be devolved to individual bodies within their own industry in terms of self swabbing.

The pilot programme will involve childcare and creches all the way up to third level, she said.

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