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system stress Covid-19 testing in ‘chaos’ as soaring cases threaten to touch 3,000 a day


Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan called for close contacts of people with Covid symptoms to stay away from test centres and self-isolate. Photo: Colin Keegan

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan called for close contacts of people with Covid symptoms to stay away from test centres and self-isolate. Photo: Colin Keegan

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan called for close contacts of people with Covid symptoms to stay away from test centres and self-isolate. Photo: Colin Keegan

The testing system for Covid-19 is buckling under the third wave, with contacts of positive cases told they will no longer get a test.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said symptomatic people have to be regarded as a higher priority than those who are close contacts, with demand for testing rocketing.

Close contacts of Covid-positive cases will no longer be advised to get tested themselves in a bid to take pressure off the system.

It has also learnt GPs have been told to ensure only those who require a test are referred.

One source said there had been “chaos” with many people turning up at testing centres without referral.

It comes against the backdrop of rising intensive care numbers and deaths linked to the disease.

New Year’s Eve brought more grim figures with another 12 deaths linked to Covid-19 and an additional 1,620 confirmed cases.

However, health officials believe the number of confirmed cases in recent days has been under-reported by an estimated 4,000. The time lag is being linked to a surge in tests after a quieter few days over Christmas.

Nphet’s Dr Philip Nolan said the tests were not necessarily cases and still have to be validated: “Many of them will turn into cases. We estimate that there is somewhere in the region of 4,000 positive cases in the last two to three days which have yet to be formally confirmed.”

Amid the alarming rise, people who are close contacts of positive cases are being asked to restrict their movements for 14 days. The HSE has asked people to stay at home and behave as if they have the virus and are contagious.

In a letter sent on Wednesday to GPs in Dublin and nearby counties, the HSE said: “Since December 23 there has been a notable increase in the number of service users attending the Covid test centre without a referral.

“This is putting significant pressure on the efficient operations of the testing services and is subsequently leading to long delays and poor user experience.

“I am writing to you to request your support and assistance to ensure that only people who require a test are referred by you and advised that only they should present themselves at a test centre.”

Yesterday, Dr Holohan said: “Given the extent of transmission of the disease we have is very, very large it must be regarded as a higher priority than the testing of contacts.

“So it’s simply about selecting that as the higher priority for the individuals, and the people who are then identified as close contacts of any cases that are identified will be advised to subject themselves to restriction of movement for a full 14 days.

“We won’t be in a position to offer them a test at this point in time.”

He said the lack of information from testing close contacts will not impede Nphet.

Dr Nolan, chairman of the Nphet Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, warned that if transmission of the virus is not suppressed, Ireland could face 3,000 cases a day by January 23.

The Irish Independent revealed two-thirds of Covid-19 deaths in December were related to outbreaks of the virus in hospitals and nursing homes. There were 101 deaths from coronavirus, 33 associated with outbreaks in hospitals and the same number linked to nursing homes.

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Dr Nolan said: “If we fail to suppress the virus, we would face an intolerable situation where numbers in hospital could increase as high as 1,500 to 2,000 people by the end of January. That’s simply untenable. Failure to supress transmission leaves us in far too stark a scenario to be acceptable.”

The HSE has confirmed plans to vaccinate 20,000 people next week, including healthcare workers and nursing home residents across all seven hospital groups. The public are being asked to remain at home, apart from travel for work, education or other essential purposes.

The National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL), the country’s largest medical virology lab which normally operates from 8am to 6pm, closed on Christmas Day and will reopen on Tuesday. An “on-call” service has been in operation since December 25. The HSE said the lab normally processes around 700 swabs per day.

In a statement, the HSE said: “The HSE processes between 10,000 and 20,000 tests per day based on demand. Different laboratories are used to varying levels based on projected demand each day. The HSE operates a modelling system that looks at demand on a daily basis and adjusts capacity accordingly.”

It added: “The NVRL were not required from Friday 25 to Tuesday 29. This has no negative impact on testing responses as we are still working within our available capacity.

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