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Limerick case surge ‘a warning to other parts of country that this virus can still be a sneaky beast’

Dr. Sarah O'Connell, University Hospital Limerick. Picture: Alan Place

Dr. Sarah O'Connell, University Hospital Limerick. Picture: Alan Place

David Raleigh

The roll-out of the national vaccination programme has added vital armoury in the battle against Covid-19.

But a surge of cases in Limerick has caused concern about hospitalisations of relatively younger adults who have been struck by the disease, given that many of the older population have received a protective shot in the arm.

Limerick’s Mayor Michael Collins has hinted a local lockdown may be needed if cases continue to rise. However TDs on Shannonside have shied away from drawing further ire from the tourism and hospitality sector, which has been particularly damaged in the pandemic.

But local health experts remain on high alert following a spike of around 500 cases in the past 12 days.

An informed HSE source said it was a warning to other parts of the country this virus was still “a sneaky beast”.

University Hospital Limerick (UHL) has seen an increase in people in their 40s and 50s needing treatment for severe effects of the virus.

“We do see some very severe cases from time to time in people who don’t have underlying conditions, and that is something I think the public should know,” Dr Sarah O’Connell told the Irish Independent.

Dr O’Connell, a consultant in infectious diseases who is also the Covid-19 clinical lead for the UHL group, added: “It is something that is very worrying for us, when we look after patients who have deteriorated from a cold perspective who would have considered themselves to be well prior to becoming sick.”

A total of seven people from within these younger adult age groups are presently being treated at UHL’s Covid respiratory ward.

“The majority are much younger now than what we would have seen previously, and for the most part some people have some underlying conditions.”

The cyberattack on the group’s HSE computers has been “severe”, but Dr O’Connell acknowledged the vaccination programme was helping to prevent the hospital being overwhelmed with attendances.

She remains cautiously optimistic that better days are ahead, but is quick to remind the public that “a vaccination isn’t a ticket, unfortunately, to move freely the way we used to before March 2020”.

Dr O’Connell said she believed we should start to see better results from the vaccination programme “by the end of this year”, but for now, in Limerick at least, the present is uncertain.

In March, as cases frustratingly flat-lined in Limerick, specialist at Public Health Mid-West, Dr Rose Fitzgerald, sounded a warning to HSE chiefs that they needed more resources, telling the Irish Independent, “if we have more than about 25 cases a day we can’t deal with them or investigate them as well as we would like”.

Ms Fitzgerald and her colleagues are currently dealing with 60-plus daily cases, using pen and paper, due to the recent ransomware attack.

Despite working with limited or no access to computers, the midwest contact tracing team is still managing to identify outbreaks and clusters and submit these details into a centralised system, as it is not connected to infected HSE computers.

More than 80 positive cases of the virus – linked to more than 10 outbreaks in the midwest – are currently being investigated in primary and secondary schools, the “vast majority of which are in Limerick”, said local health officials. These “significant number of outbreaks in school settings are driven by activities outside the school, for example large family outbreaks, multi-household clusters, and social activity”.

Local health officials are also investigating and contact tracing “sporadic cases” in schools.

Investigations and tracing is being conducted at 23 workplaces, mostly in Limerick, involving 32 cases and around 60 close contacts.

A new information campaign lists the main causes of the spread in workplaces in the Limerick region as “inconsistent mask-wearing, poor social distancing, inadequate ventilation, staff members working while infectious, and a lack of robust Covid-19 workplace policies”.

The sharp rise in cases locally has been linked to social gatherings. However, it has emerged that Leaving Certificate exams may be at increased risk due to the spread of the virus from community settings to schools.

Dr Mai Mannix, director of Public Health Mid-West, urged people in the Limerick region “to exercise extra caution”.

“We are concerned about the significant onward transmission from multiple settings that end up impacting school-going children.

"And if any Leaving Cert student becomes infected or is identified as a close contact in the coming days, they will be at risk of missing out on th e first week of exams.”

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