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Ireland moves closer to ‘tripledemic’ as new Covid-19 variant set to take hold

Eilish O'ReganIndependent.ie

A new Covid-19 variant, which looks set to cause a rise in infections over coming weeks, is at risk of pushing Ireland closer to the feared “tripledemic “of winter viruses.

Chief medical officer Breda Smyth said the BQ.1 variant, which is part of the Omicron family, has increased in circulation here and in other European countries and may lead to more Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations in the coming weeks and months.

The warning comes as flu is also on the rise and set to spread further over Christmas along with high levels of respiratory infection RSV, creating the conditions for the so called “tripledemic” and confirming worst fears.

BQ.1 is a descendant of BA.5 which fuelled summer cases here but along with its relative BA.1.1, it is on course to become dominant.

It is of concern because it has mutations which make it better able to get around the defences from vaccination and previous infection.

However, two leading experts said yesterday they are hopeful the impact of a increase in Covid cases will be reduced in terms of severe disease.

Professor Sam McConkey, infectious disease consultant in Beaumont Hospital said :”I am still cautiously optimistic that the level of vaccination and prior infection we have had will protect us from new variants and we are over the worst in terms of disease from Covid-19.”

He said that in the last six months doctors are not seeing the bad pneumonia and air hunger previously impacting Covid-19 patients. Older people are getting a form of delirium where they are confused and need extra support and care to look after them for two or three weeks.

He said it is unlikely we will see the kind of coronavirus waves which were experienced in January 2021.

Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology in Trinity College ,said every time a variant changes it has the potential to impact the level of protection people get from a vaccine or prior infection.

The major new Omicron variants over the past year have been increasingly more transmissible, he pointed out.

However , he added although “lots of cases of Covid-19 have been circulating they have not been ending up in hospital with severe disease”.

He believes there will be no return to Covid-19 restrictions at this point but he welcomed the fact that the wearing of face masks is still in place in healthcare settings.

Vulnerable people including those who are not vaccinated, older age groups and the immuno-compromised remain most at risk from any increase in the circulation of Covid-19 viruses and need to ensure they are fully vaccinated as well as following the basic guidelines around the wearing of facemasks.

As of mid- November around one third of the population aged 50-64 had received a second Covid booster and for those aged 65 and older, 76pc had got the second booster with 29pc having got a third shot.

While Covid-19 is still a health threat, though not on the level it was previously, any increase will lead to more illness and pressure on the health service as RSV remains high and flu, which, with more travel and mixing over Christmas, will increase and cause sickness.

The figures for last week showed a rise in confirmed flu cases, up to 370 compared to 222 the previous week with 123 in hospital and two notified deaths.

There were nine outbreaks, including six in a hospital, two in a residential institution and one in a nursing home. RSV remains at high levels, with 678 cases last week, including 238 hospitalised .Nearly half of cases are in children aged four and younger and more than a quarter were in people 65 and older.

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