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drop in infections Nursing home visits could return ‘in weeks’ as Covid-19 outbreaks fall


Nursing home. Stock picture

Nursing home. Stock picture

Nursing home. Stock picture

Hope has risen for the return of nursing home visits within weeks after “robust” evidence emerged that vaccines are leading to a significant drop in infections and deaths among residents.

However, the ongoing threat from mutated versions of the virus was also highlighted after it was reported a case of a B1525 variant, which could be more infectious and potentially impact on vaccines, was detected here.

Public health officials are investigating the origin of the case, which has previously been found in the UK and Nigeria, and whether it was linked to recent travel.

Professor Philip Nolan, who tracks the spread of coronavirus, provided the first robust evidence that vaccines are protecting nursing homes from infections and death after being in the frontline of risk during the pandemic.

He said in the past fortnight there had been a very small number of cases in long-term care homes — less than 200 last week compared with 1,250 case at the end of January.

“It has been sudden and sharp,” he said, and this is also seen among nursing home staff. “Although the vaccination regimen is not complete, you begin to see some protection three weeks from the first dose.”

Deaths from the virus are also decreasing more rapidly in long-term care homes than in the community.

There are also signs of vaccine protection in healthcare workers, among whom protections have also fallen.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn confirmed the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) was to receive guidance from an expert group on March 11 outlining how nursing home visits could best be done safely.

He said the visits would be done on a “slow and phased basis”.

It is unclear what the guidance will involve but under previous relaxation of rules residents of nursing homes and other care facilities were able to have one visit by one person per week.

Several nursing homes still have outbreaks of the virus and public health officials will be cautious in the beginning.

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Earlier, HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said there would need to be a “dividend” for residents.

“We have to be mindful we are coming out of a January surge which saw 1,000 deaths, one-third of which happened in residential settings so people would not forgive us if we rushed into this,” he said.

There were 58,414 people vaccinated in long-term residential care homes up to last Monday and 3,600 more will get another dose next week which should complete the vaccination programme there.

Referring to the fall in cases linked to vaccination, he said there is good evidence from Israel and Scotland about the impact vaccination is having on infections. “What we are seeing here now are early signals which, based on international experience, we can increasingly be confident and translate into robust evidence,” Dr Henry said.

Meanwhile, a further 35 deaths from the virus were reported yesterday and 613 more cases.

Prof Nolan said even though progress in the fall of the virus was slower the “progress is still there”.

The incidence is falling among all age groups except for the 19-24-year-olds and there is a persistence of disease among the over-85s.

There has been an increase in close contacts of people infected with the virus but this is largely due to the more infectious UK variant which now accounts for 91pc of cases and is more infectious.

It is also influencing the R number which is around 0.6 to 0.9 compared with 0.65 to 0.85 last week.

Dr Glynn said the reopening of schools was a signal of hope but he said uncertainties meant no timetable could be set to lift lockdown restrictions. There was a responsibility not to give false hope, he insisted.

“If we keep numbers down, we will be in a much brighter place by the end of March. The impact of the new variant will be monitored over the coming weeks.”

It emerged yesterday that several GPs, including rural doctors, are having problems getting deliveries of the Covid-19 vaccine, which is leading to delays for many patients aged 85 and over who in some instances have had clinics cancelled.

Some had not received expected deliveries and other doctors got too little or too much.

Up to last week 14,614 people aged 85 and older had been given the inoculation.

HSE chief Paul Reid said work was under way to address the problems and said the timeline to have all over-70s vaccinated by mid-May would not be affected.

Nationally up to Monday, 226,291 people had received their first dose and 133,325 were fully inoculated.

The threat from new variants remains and four more cases of the South African variant have been detected bringing the total to 15.

Three cases of the Brazilian variant were detected last week and none have been found since.

Dr Cillian de Gascun of the Virus Reference Laboratory said around 15pc of cases of the virus now undergo more detailed investigation to find out if they are one of these variants of concern.

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