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'Tis the season: Covid-19 tests are in demand this Christmas as people begin to travel home

Public health doctors have been urging caution about over-reliance on testing.

Drive-in testing at Dublin Airport.
Drive-in testing at Dublin Airport.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

THE WEEKS BEFORE Christmas usually mean completing a checklist as long as Santa’s famous ledger, but for many this year a Covid-19 test is an unexpected addition.

We’re now less than two weeks from the big day and people are already being asked to cut their contacts down if they’re planning on seeing vulnerable loved ones.

Extra care is also required of people flying into this country for Christmas, with almost all arrivals right now technically requiring a two-week period of movement restrictions.

Under changes brought in last month, however, all arrivals into this country can end their movement restriction much earlier if they get a negative Covid-19 PCR test.

The test must be taken at least five days after people arrive here, so it’s still an imposition and does involve almost a week of movement restriction, but it’s a lot more doable.

All this care and attention does mean that private testing is about to have its busiest period yet in this country.

Testing carried out through the HSE is still being done under the same criteria, having symptoms or being a close contact, but private asymptomatic testing is a growing business.

The largest such facility for private testing is the testing centre at Dublin Airport that is operated by RodDoc.

The site has both walk-in and drive-thru test facilities and recently opened a new laboratory building to replace the mobile unit that had been testing the swabs.

Chief executive of RocDoc David Rock told TheJournal.ie that they have “in the ballpark” of about 300-400 tests per day at the Dublin Airport facility over Christmas, but that this might increase as more bookings are made.

“There is some days that are above that and there’s definitely still capacity, we’re currently recruiting more staff to so we can open up more over the next few weeks. There’s only one or two pinch points, so that’s not too bad,” he says.

Testing slots are available between 8am and 8pm with results to be expected back 12 to 36 hours later for PCR tests.

RocDoc also operates testing centres at Cork, Shannon and and Knock airports but the company can’t actually be sure how much of the testing it’s doing is related to people who’ve recently arrived in Ireland. There’s no requirement for people to prove if they’ve returned to Ireland and are seeking a test for that reason.

Rock estimates that perhaps 40 to 50 tests a day at the moment are related to travel but that this is likely to increase in the lead up to Christmas.

What is clear at the is that while travel-related testing was assumed to be where the demand would be, people in living Ireland have been seeking tests too as part of a cautious approach.

This is also the experience of Boots Ireland which is currently operating Covid-19 testing at seven branches around the country, with more expected to come on stream in the next week.

A quick look at the online booking portal for the days in an around Christmas shows the Dawson Street branch is all booked out for Covid-19 tests, with only a handful available in Nass and just two in Galway.

2665 Boots Covid Test Boots on Dawson Street where Covid-19 testing is available. Source: RollingNews.ie

Pharmacist and regulatory affairs manager at Boots Ireland Heather Feeney says the tests are available for four hours from 9am, but that if demand allows it that could be pushed out more.

“Dublin has been amazingly busy and the other stores, like your Galways and Letterkennys, they have been filling up quite significantly as well. And what we’ve noticed is that a lot of the demand that’s come through in recent weeks is filling up the Christmas week,” she says.

“We have scope to expand the clinic times, so if it’s a case of somewhere like Tullamore where the nearest store is 40 minutes away, we’d have to extend the clinic times, but in the likes of Dublin we also have the option of extending it to other stores. So I’d be anticipating we’ll be rolling out more in Dublin in the next week or so.”

Feeney says there is “a lot if interest” from people who are staying within these shores but who are simply travelling home to see loved ones.

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The way it works with the testing at Boots is that people who book a test have a pre-consolation over the phone first and then present to the store for a swab.

Each booking is in a six-minute slot, with sperate pharmacists on duty for the swabbing while another handles the usual dispensing.

We also given them the Covid screening to make sure they’re not living with someone who’s awaiting a test or that they’ve got no symptoms themselves. And in the case that they had travelled into Ireland, that they have been in Ireland for the requisite time.

“Our tests are done at night, so they go to the lab by courier in the evening and then they run overnight,” Feeney adds.

Results are usually delivered the following day either by text message, phone call or via a mobile app.

But while private testing is ramping up in this country, public health officials have been urging caution, particular in the run up to Christmas.

The plea is twofold, firstly that a test only provides a snapshot of a particular time and secondly that they may give people a false sense of security, meaning safe behaviours like social distancing and limiting contacts are forgotten.

On the first point, it is possible that if someone were to become infected today they may not test positive tomorrow, but can then be infectious a week later when they are seeing people.

“Quite simply, we wouldn’t advise that as as a protective measure, ” Dr Ronan Glynn said when asked about pre-Christmas testing on Thursday.

“If people want to protect their families, protect their loved ones, protect people with medical conditions that they’ll be coming into contact with over the next few weeks, there are many other avenues available to them. First and foremost it’s about keeping their network very small, meeting the same people.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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