Covid-19: We stayed inside, stopped the economy - and probably saved thousands of lives

We’ve heard devastating stories of how the virus spread quickly through two separate homes for the elderly, killing many residents. On the other hand, the latest analysis of recent figures give a glimmer of hope that we may be starting to turn a corner.
Covid-19: We stayed inside, stopped the economy - and probably saved thousands of lives
Working to contain Covid-19. File image

Two stories emerged this week in the fight against Covid-19. As the death toll from the virus grew, serious questions have been raised over the approach to containing the virus in nursing homes and care homes for our most vulnerable.

With almost 340 clusters recorded in residential care homes, we’ve heard devastating stories of how the virus spread quickly through two separate homes for the elderly, killing many residents.

On the other hand, the latest analysis of recent figures give a glimmer of hope that we may be starting to turn a corner.

The tough lockdown restrictions introduced last month are working; We are beginning to successfully suppress the disease, and by doing so we have so far averted a major catastrophe.

The reproductive growth rate of a virus, the Ro [R nought], measures how many people each infected person is expected to pass the disease onto.

At the beginning of the crisis here, the Ro of Covid-19 stood roughly at 4, meaning that each infected person was likely to infect four more.

It’s now predicted to stand between 0.7 and 1. If the Ro had stayed closer to 4, Ireland would be facing 120,000 new cases of the virus daily by the end of the month.

Even with an Ro of 2.4 — the reproduction rate of the virus before tougher restrictions kicked in on March 28 — we still would have been facing 70,000 new cases a day as the epidemic hit a peak in May.

Instead, now the health officials believe we are beginning to hit a plateau and they are hopeful that we may start to see a decrease in the number of new cases confirmed each day in the coming weeks.

Ireland is still way off target when it comes to reaching its goal on daily testing. As of midnight on April 13, close to 91,000 tests had been carried out — far from the 15,000 tests a day initially set out. But hospital admissions are not where they would be if the virus was running unchecked in the community.

Left unmitigated, estimates suggest that 2,200 people would have required critical care by next Thursday.

"We wouldn’t have been able to look after them and even if we were, this day next week we would have been looking at a total of 1,700 deaths and 4,800 deaths by the end of the month," Professor Philip Nolan of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) said at a briefing on Thursday night.

This is a very serious situation which prevented was prevented by the measures taken on March 28.

The latest modelling by the NPHET also gives some small sense that the current measures will not last forever.  The current restrictions mightn’t necessarily be lifted on May 5, and any growth in the Ro number will have to be carefully managed. Even an increase to an Ro of 1.2 would see Irish hospitals come under serious strain by August.

The prudent approach is to continue with restrictions until we are absolutely certain that we can see they are working, according to Professor Nolan.

The NPHET is currently modelling hypothetical scenarios should restrictions be lifted partially on May 5; If there is an increase in the Ro of up to 1.6, bringing back in strict measures would see us regain control of the disease. However, if it grows to 2, it will become unmanageable.

But the next challenge Ireland is facing is keeping the Ro less than 1 as we begin to chart our return to normality, whenever that may be.

More than anything else, the latest modelling matters because it shows us that every sacrifice we’re making at the moment is starting to take hold, and it’s helping to move us closer to getting back to normality as soon as possible.

We can take a small bit of comfort in knowing that everything we are missing out on the moment is helping to hammer out the disease.

In the years to come, it’s starting to look like we will be able to tell our children and our grandchildren that we stayed inside, ground our economy to a halt, and went without seeing our loved ones — and that in doing so we saved thousands of lives.

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