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case surge Mystery of Donegal's Covid-19 spike unravelled by Facebook pictures

County dogged with virus after big gatherings at parties and funerals

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As well as increased testing in the region, which is being facilitated, Dr Armstrong says there is a need to get more vaccines rolled out in the county.

As well as increased testing in the region, which is being facilitated, Dr Armstrong says there is a need to get more vaccines rolled out in the county.

As well as increased testing in the region, which is being facilitated, Dr Armstrong says there is a need to get more vaccines rolled out in the county.

IT didn't take much probing for public health teams to get to the bottom of the recent spike in case numbers in Co Donegal.

The clues were there, hidden in plain sight. Pictures on Facebook of a party in full flow.

Scores of cars spotted parked outside a house after a funeral.

Beaches and forests littered with empty cans and bottles after a night of carefree fun.

"People know people and they know what's going on," said Dr Anthony Breslin from the HSE's public health division in the North West.

"Someone will have seen someone posting a picture on Facebook at a party. If there is a funeral, people will have seen the large number of cars."

Co Donegal has been in and out of the Covid spotlight since the pandemic began.

Since September, the incidence of the virus in the county has been above the national average. It now has the State's highest rate at 293.4 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 127.3 nationally.

The current hotspots in Milford, where the rate stands at 675 cases per 100,000 people, and Letterkenny, where it is 600, appears to show that the problem lies in the north of the county.

In the southern part, the rate of infection is about three times lower than the national average.

"We have cases all over the county but it is highest towards the east when you hit Letterkenny," said Dr Breslin.

"Then from there the rates increase slightly as you go to the Border. That's been the situation since Covid started, with more people living in that part of the county."

According to Dr Breslin, public health teams have noticed that people are mixing more.

Events like birthday parties and wakes are becoming hotbeds for transmission, with cases then bleeding into schools, creches and workplaces.

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"The same thing is happening elsewhere in the country but the problem is 10 extra cases a day is a lot in Donegal," said Dr Breslin.

"It really pushes the rate up, whereas 10 extra cases in Dublin isn't going to matter that much.

"I suppose what we are trying to say is 'yes, we will have a background number of cases until we get Covid under control full stop, but what we don't want is events such as parties etc leading to incidents and outbreaks'.

"We had some birthday parties and 19 cases from that involving three families we know of.

"Then, unfortunately, there was a wake and out of that wake we got 84 cases."

People are weary, conceded Dr Breslin, but there is a lot at stake.

"We are not trying to name and blame," he said.

"We are just trying to say, 'Look, yes things have improved but we are not over the hump yet, you still have to wash your hands, you have to social distance and wear your face covering'."

Unlike previous spikes in cases, often associated to the Lifford/Stranorlar region close to the Border, the current spike cannot be solely attributed to cross-Border activity.

Dr Paul Armstrong, a GP in Lifford, said local reports pointed to large meet-ups of younger people, partying, socialising and drinking.

"I don't think cross-Border travel is a big a factor this time," he said.

"It seems to be more than that. It's lot of younger kids, some of it is through the schools, teenagers and younger cohorts.

"The good side of this is that so far we haven't seen people getting very ill or ending up in hospitals in bigger numbers.

"But we have to be honest here, there is something going on. Any honest person will look at it and ask why is this happening and what can we do about it and most people can understand that.

Warned

"Nobody likes the fact that the gardaí have had to put up a national hotline but it does raise awareness about saying to people 'look there is a problem here and we need to do something about it'."

As well as increased testing in the region, which is being facilitated, Dr Armstrong says there is a needed to get more vaccines rolled out.

Thirdly, he warned, more needs to be done to address the growing problem of vaccine hesitancy.

"We are getting huge numbers of calls from patients regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine," he said.

"They want to know if they can get the Pfizer one, can they be squeezed into one of our vaccine clinics, can we facilitate them.

"The switchboard is just hopping with queries every single day. People are saying, 'I don't want to register I read something somewhere, can you not get it (a vaccine) for me?' or 'I saw such and such on social media.'

"It's a big issue. People need to realise that all of NI, England, Scotland and Wales, AstraZenca has been central to the success of the vaccine roll out."

GPs are not involved in administering the AstraZeneca vaccine to the 60-69 year-old age group. Instead, they must register on the HSE portal and wait to be called for a vaccine at a regional vaccination hub.

"I do feel that if we had been able to administer AstraZenca people would have more confidence," said Dr Armstrong.

"We do their flu vaccines and we know them. With the way things are being done at the minute they feel they are going to an anonymous centre, they don't know anyone and they can't ask any questions."

For now, as efforts continue to dampen down transmission rates in the community, Donegal remains under the spotlight. It is understood that the next week to 10 days will be crucial in assessing if the situation has been brought under control.

In Raphoe, pharmacist Margaret Doherty said that there is a fear the current focus on the county could have a negative impact as the tourist industry begins to open up.

"There are people who are depending on the business during the summer months," she said.

"They won't survive if they don't get visitors and it's important that Donegal is seen to be a safe place to visit.

"A lot of people have made huge sacrifices and its disheartening when the actions of a few result in what we are seeing at the minute.

"This didn't happen overnight and the county as a whole has needed more of a targeted effort in terms of resources. I think there is a feeling that we have been left behind on this."

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