uncertainty | 

More Covid restrictions on cards amid fears over Omicron variant and high case numbers

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said yesterday that although there had been a slowdown in the spread of the virus, cases remain 'very, very high'
Dr Tony Holohan. Photo: Colin Keegan

Dr Tony Holohan. Photo: Colin Keegan

Eilish O’Regan

More restrictions in the run-up to the festive season and Christmas get-togethers are on the table amid ongoing concern about the high level of Covid-19 infection and the threat of the new Omicron variant.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said yesterday that although there had been a slowdown in the spread of the virus, cases remain “very, very high.”

The country is vulnerable to an increase in pre-Christmas socialising in the coming weeks on top of “obvious uncertainty” around the new variant, which he fears is more infectious than Delta.

Asked at a media briefing if limitations on people allowed at gatherings are on the cards, he said this would be considered by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) when it meets today to review data on cases and hospitalisations.

“Among all the considerations will be restrictions in the run-up to Christmas. We will be giving consideration to the data in relation to Delta and the emerging uncertainties we have around this new variant.”

Also under review today is the impact of existing measures on the spread of the virus and on hospitalisations.

A three-month plan to steer the country through the “Covid winter” may be drawn up, according to sources.

Dr Holohan was speaking as the first case of much-feared new Omicron variant was detected here in a person who tested positive after returning from one of the designated southern African at-risk countries last week.

There is yet no evidence of spread, but enhanced contact tracing is under way.

As children face a choice between panto or playdate, the strong recommendations look set to shift to adults at today’s Nphet meeting – and the need for smaller gatherings as well as rationed socialising.

Meanwhile, another 3,793 new cases of the virus were reported yesterday, with 55 more Covid-related deaths in the past week.

There were 578 Covid-19 patients in hospital, a fall of one since Tuesday, of whom 117 are in intensive care – a drop of five.

Overall, the rate of spread of the virus is slowing down, but the cases in the five- to 12-year-old age groups continue to rise, along with an increased demand for testing.

The R number – the average number of people an infected person will pass the virus on to – is now down to 1 due to the public response to calls to reduce mixing, as well as other factors like the vaccine booster roll-out.

Around 6,077 children in primary school had confirmed Covid-19 in the week to last Saturday. Only 44 of these were linked to clusters in schools.

This was because of an increase in detecting cases, due to more testing being carried out.

Professor Philip Nolan, who tracks the virus, said the situation is stable but still high risk. He said the current position is better than the optimistic modelling projections, and he believes if the current level of socialising remains or falls, then cases of the virus will drop.

The booster shot bonus is being seen in older age groups of 70 and above, with a fall in the proportion of Covid-19 hospital patients among the over- 65s.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn defended the decision to make children from third class up wear face masks, saying the U-turn was due to the worsening spread of the virus.

Asked about Hepa filters in schools, which aim to clean air, Prof Nolan said they work best in smaller areas where there is a known source of infection and they are not useful in the corner of a classroom with 20 to 30 pupils.

He suggested that measures which reduce close-range spread of the virus are more effective.

It was advised not to over-ventilate classrooms by leaving windows open all day.

Dr Cillian de Gascun of the National Virus Reference Laboratory said around 1,500 virus samples a week will be analysed to find out if they are variants.

This could be increased in light of the Omicron variant.

The discovery of the first case was “blind luck” and came about due to a random sample being sent for sequencing, with a member of laboratory staff becoming alert to its possibility as the new variant last Friday.

Meanwhile, there was an increase of 29 outbreaks of the virus last week to 151, according to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).

There were 12 outbreaks in hospitals, up from eight the previous week, and a doubling in nursing homes to 10.

The number of outbreaks in schools rose by 21 to 45.

No outbreaks were reported in pubs or hotels . However, not all outbreaks are captured due to the focus on key settings by public health staff.

Dr Holohan said, “As we look to the month ahead, consider your choices and make the right ones. Do not go in to work tomorrow if you can work from home. If you are an employer, facilitate remote working for your employees.”

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