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HSE apology after asking people with positive Covid result to alert own contacts

It comes as the public health service tries to get to grips with a second surge of coronavirus cases.


HSE clinical lead for testing Niamh O’Beirne (Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

HSE clinical lead for testing Niamh O’Beirne (Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

HSE clinical lead for testing Niamh O’Beirne (Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

The HSE has apologised after asking almost 2,000 people who received a positive Covid-19 result to alert their own close contacts due to a breakdown in its contact tracing system.

Niamh O’Beirne, national lead for testing and tracing at the HSE, told an Oireachtas committee the rapid rise in coronavirus cases earlier this month had “exceeded the capacity” of the Irish tracing system.

She claimed asking people who tested positive for the virus to notify their own contacts was the “only viable option” available to them to “reset the system”.

It emerged earlier this month that the HSE had asked a group of people to tell their own close contacts of their positive test result and to ask them to arrange a test through their GPs to check their own infection status.

HSE chief Paul Reid apologised last week over the matter.

It comes as the public health service tries to get to grips with a second surge of coronavirus cases.

On Wednesday six further deaths were recorded in relation to the virus, with another 675 confirmed cases.

The number of people suffering with the disease in intensive care units is now 41, up three on the previous day.

As of 2pm on Wednesday, there were 328 patients in hospitals with the virus, an increase of 19 in the last 24 hours.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has again urged people to ensure they immediately self-isolate if they develop symptoms, are awaiting test results or become a close contact of a confirmed case.

He said: “Everyone must be aware of the actions they should take if they have symptoms or are awaiting a test or if they are a contact of a confirmed case.

“If you have symptoms of COVID-19, you must self isolate and phone your GP for further advice.

“If you have been referred for a test or are awaiting a test result, you must self isolate. If you are a confirmed case of COVID-19 you must self isolate for 10 days.

“If you are identified or have identified yourself as a close contact of a confirmed case, you must restrict your movements.

“Stay informed on the public health advice around COVID-19 and be prepared to protect yourself and those around you.”

Some 111,660 tests have been completed in the past seven days with a positivity rate of 5.7%.

There are 327 patients in hospitals with Covid-19 including 41 people in ICU.

Mr Reid said hospitals, testing and tracing systems in many EU countries are under severe strain and many have greater capacity than Irish hospitals for beds.

He tweeted: “Many have greater capacity than our hospitals for beds & ICU. I know its hard on many, but what we continue to do is protecting us to date from ending up in the same place.”

Ms O’Beirne was one of a number of HSE representatives who appeared before the health committee via video link on Wednesday to face questions over the breakdown in its contact tracing system.

She said the decision was taken to ensure that each person was informed “as quickly as possible” and to allow them to be “aware of their status and to take action to care for themselves, and protect others from infection”.

“While this was clearly not ideal and we appreciate the impact on those affected, it was deemed to be the only viable option in order to deal with the most recent cases quickly and reset the system,” she said.

“We apologise to the 1,971 people impacted and are this week going to call everyone we missed to check they were able to identify contacts and advise them to be tested.”

She said the decision was taken to “maintain effective turnaround times” for the population at large as the system “struggled with capacity”.

She told politicians that six weeks ago they were making 8,500 calls per week, but that figure had increased in the last week to more than 38,000 calls.

But Ms O’Beirne said the contact tracing system was “back on track” since October 23, and that all close contacts were being informed within 24 hours of the notification of a positive case.

She said the HSE plans to recruit up to 800 contact tracers “to ensure that we can address future demand”.

At that point, she added, the health service would review the requirement for further recruitment.

“Over 800 people are through the interview process, 274 new staff have been taken on board to date, with a further 90 staff expected to be on board by the end of this week,” Ms O’Beirne said.

“We will continue bringing in 60-70 new staff to the service every week over the coming period.”

Sinn Fein’s health spokesman David Cullinane criticised the HSE for not recruiting more people over the summer months.

“If we had all of those staff in place it may have well been the case that the system may not have collapsed and you wouldn’t have had to come before the committee today to apologise to those people. So why is that recruitment only happening now?,” he asked.

In response, Ms O’Beirne said over the summer staff deployed for contact tracing had come from universities and other roles in the HSE, and many returned to their own roles.

Consequently, she said they had begun a recruitment campaign in August and they were still in the process of going through applications.

She added it was “unfortunate” that they did not have the staff necessary earlier this month.

Online Editors