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mutated virus Darkest day in the fight against Covid-19 as new South African strain found here

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Dr Cillian De Gascun, Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Dr Cillian De Gascun, Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Dr Cillian De Gascun, Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

A highly infectious strain of coronavirus which is linked to an explosion of Covid-19 in South Africa was confirmed here yesterday as the country suffered its darkest day for deaths since May.

Three cases of the South African variant which is easier to catch were found as the daily death toll from the virus rose to 20 and a record 8,248 people tested positive for the virus.

The number of patients hospitalised with Covid-19 also rose to a new record of 1,180, while 109 are seriously ill in intensive care.

Several hospitals were creaking under the pressure yesterday as more than 2,700 staff were absent due to the virus and at one point yesterday there was no free intensive care bed in 13 hospitals. There were only 21 intensive care beds available across the country.

Limerick hospital intensive care consultant Dr Catherine Motherway said: “This is the most worried and anxious I have been about this pandemic, and we were fairly scared in March.”

There are now fears that the South African strain will spread further and that it will drive up infection.

Already the other highly infectious form of coronavirus – found in the UK – has contributed to the current surge along with Christmas socialising.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said: “Three cases of a new variant of Covid-19 recently identified in South Africa have been confirmed in Ireland today by whole genome sequencing.

“All of the cases identified are directly associated with recent travel from South Africa.

“Anyone who has travelled from South Africa recently is advised to self-isolate for 14 days and identify themselves through a GP for testing as soon as possible.

“We are particularly advising healthcare workers travelling from South Africa, that it is essential that they self-isolate for 14 days before entering or re-entering the workplace.

“While this variant has not yet been identified in many European countries we believe the identification here reflects the extent of genome sequencing surveillance in Ireland.”

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Dr Cillian De Gascun of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, said a European Centre for Disease Control assessment found that preliminary analyses indicated that the South African variant was associated with a heightened viral load and may have increased transmissibility.

There was no evidence to date that this variant caused more severe forms of the illness in those who caught it.

There is currently not enough information available to determine whether this variant poses a possible risk related to vaccine match and effectiveness.

The potential impact of the new variant on vaccines is under investigation and results are expected in the coming weeks.

The surging spread of the virus is already pushing some hospitals to the limit and Cork University Hospital yesterday had to cancel all non-essential services until January 24.

It cancelled all scheduled services, inpatient, medical, surgical and outpatients, announcing it was dealing with emergency levels only.

It was forced to issue a plea to volunteer nurses and care assistants to come and work in the hospital due to depletion of staff as result of the virus.

There are now major fears about the impact that the cancellation of services in hospitals across the country will have on patients with non-Covid illnesses.

An agreement was reached between the HSE and 16 private hospitals yesterday to provide care for public patients who need to be treated.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said last night that talks were still under way with one remaining private hospital.

The ‘safety net’ agreement will be in place for 12 months and will be triggered where a surge is “imminent or present”.

Meanwhile, BreastCheck said it would be postponing screening of well women and assessing its ability to offer routine appointments at local level. Women who need follow-up assessment should continue to attend.

The screening service said the risks posed by Covid-19 to well women outweighed the benefits of routine screening.

The Irish Cancer Society said patients and their families were feeling significant anxiety about the unknown consequences of Covid restrictions on their own care plan.

Director of services Donal Buggy said: “Over the Christmas period we noticed the level of anxiety and distress increasing on calls to our support line. Calls are taking longer as our nurses deal with increasingly challenging problems and questions from members of the public.

“Uncertainty is one of the biggest issues for anyone affected by cancer at the moment: uncertainty around their treatment plan, what will happen if they catch Covid, and when they will get a vaccine.”

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