Elaine Loughlin: Scramble on to find more contact tracers for imploding system

Eight months into the pandemic, it appears that the recruitment of full-time dedicated contact tracers is only beginning with 400 currently working in the system
Elaine Loughlin: Scramble on to find more contact tracers for imploding system

Two phones with the official Irish health service executive "Covid Tracker" contact tracing app installed on them as the government prepares to launch the app.

Eight months into the pandemic the vital links between testing and tracing have buckled and cracked under the strain.

Even more concerning are the severed chains of communication between the HSE and the Government.

The breakdown in relations was laid bare on the floor of the Dáil when the Taoiseach bluntly acknowledged that he had learned of the immense pressure on the tracing system by text, when he had been sent a link to a news article.

A spokesperson for Stephen Donnelly later confirmed that he too had learned of the decision to ask Covid-19 patients to contact their own close contacts through the media.

Since March we have been repeatedly told that a robust testing and tracing system is a key element in our fight against Covid-19.

However, it now appears that in the intervening months, the HSE has not ramped up its contact tracing capacity which resulted in the system being completely overwhelmed last weekend.

Contract tracers were so swamped that it was decided to press the reset button, they would simply ignore those diagnosed over the weekend and begin anew with Monday's Covid-19 list. Those who they did not get around to were told by text to alert their close contacts.

However, why or how has the system collapsed? It is certainly not because of a lack of willing and able volunteers.

Earlier this year as the country braced itself for the unknown, 73,000 people signed up to Be on Call for Ireland, many of these travelling from across the globe or volunteering to come out of retirement to help.

While a significant chunk of these didn't have the right qualifications, were already working in the health service or were simply not available for work, many more remain in limbo waiting to have their call answered.

Figures released earlier this month show that there are 1,480 people currently in the Be on Call for Ireland 'pool' -  755 of these have gone through the entire process and are deemed "job ready". However, almost 300 job ready candidates have dropped out after waiting for months.

The pool now includes 64 medical laboratory aides, 264 nurses and midwives, 264 doctors and 62 clerical officers.

Sinn Féin health spokesperson David Cullinane, who obtained the figures, said the Government wasted the summer months when it should have been preparing for a second wave.

As well as those who signed up through the Be on Call initiative, he said there are hundreds more non-healthcare workers, many who have lost jobs due to the pandemic, who are willing and want to work in contact tracing.

"Government has moved far too slowly in stepping up contact tracing and have left us exposed."

Likewise GP Illona Duffy told of colleagues who applied "months ago" to work as contact tracers and are still waiting to be employed.

"I talked to GPs earlier this week who had volunteered to be contact tracers with people who either work part-time or were semi-retired. They volunteered months ago and they're still going through the process, one GP told me that she's still filling in the forms and was asked for her Leaving Cert results.

"Now, how ridiculous is that and how bureaucratic is that," the Monaghan-based GP told RTÉ's Claire Byrne show.

Just 24 hours after then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stood to address the nation from the steps of Blair House in Washington DC on March 12, the Defence Forces had been deployed in contact tracing.

“Contact tracing without question is the most important thing we can be doing right now. And the reason for that is it pushes the epidemic curve back so less people get infected, and the dramatic-ness of that epidemic curve gets softened slightly,” said Dr Greg Martin, a HSE public health specialist who had been tasked with training 80 cadets.

In the following weeks public servants were also drafted in to work in contact tracing centres around the county. It was a temporary measure aimed at solving an immediate tracing crisis.

And yet, eight months on, it appears that the recruitment of full-time dedicated contact tracers is only beginning with 400 currently working in the system.

With 1,000 plus Covid cases now being reported each day it's no wonder that the system imploded over the weekend.

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