Ireland’s PCR testing system is now so overwhelmed that people in younger age groups with Covid symptoms will be sent antigen tests to use rather than booking a PCR test.
The number of days someone who has had a booster jab but who subsequently gets Covid must self-isolate has also been reduced, from ten down to seven. This also applies to vaccinated people who have had Covid-19 within the previous three months.
Why are the rules around testing being changed?
A record 20,554 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed on Thursday, the highest daily caseload since the pandemic began, with many people unable to book a PCR test from the HSE due to demand.
This action is being taken due to “the very large volumes of disease now being experienced”, the Department of Health said.
Close to 300,000 PCR tests will be completed this week, the most in any week, and still many people cannot get tested due to demand.
Who is affected?
In a statement on Thursday evening, the Department of Health said people aged between four and 39 should use antigen tests if they suspect they have Covid, and only seek a PCR test from the HSE if they get a positive antigen result.
The new rules do not apply to people aged 0-3, 40 or older, people with underlying conditions or healthcare workers.
Those aged 4-39 who are now asked to not book PCR tests straight away, can apply for antigen tests to be sent to their home by the HSE if they have symptoms, so they will not be expected to buy them.
“Antigen testing for those aged 4-39 years, who do not have an underlying condition will be provided using the model currently in place within the HSE - home delivery from a central distribution point”.
When does the new system come into operation?
From Monday, the HSE will start posting antigen tests to people in the relevant age groups who visit the test portal on the HSE.ie website seeking a test.
“The HSE has advised that arrangements to provide for distribution of antigen tests can be operationalised from next Monday, January 3,” Minister Donnelly said.
What are the new rules on self-isolation?
Minister Donnelly also confirmed this evening that people who have received a booster vaccine and contract Covid can now leave isolation after seven days instead of ten.
This also applies to people who have not had a booster but had two initial doses and have since had and recovered from Covid-19 in the past three months.
It follows the US Centre for Disease Control reducing the isolation period to five days – as long as symptoms have abated – followed by five days of increased mask-wearing. It cited evidence that most transmission occurs early in the course of the illness.
What happens after seven days?
The department said those who leave isolation after seven days should
Minister Donnelly said that disease incidence has “continued to rapidly increase in Ireland, with recent daily case counts substantially exceeding the highest previously reported in the pandemic to date”.
He added: “The 14-day incidence is now estimated at over 2,300 per 100,000 population. We are seeing levels of new daily cases in hospitals that we have not seen since last January. The latest data on S-gene target failure data indicates that approximately 92pc of cases are due to the Omicron variant.
“While our booster rollout programme is going extremely well, the extent to which the epidemic is continuing to accelerate means that there is still significant concern regarding the likely impact of such high case counts on our health services.”
“Remember to layer up on all of the protective measures available to us including mask wearing, good ventilation, antigen testing and adherence to other public health guidance,” Minister Donnelly said.