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Tracing the start of the Third Wave: Over 3,000 close contact tests from socialising in November and early December

Household settings made up the largest number of close contacts referred for a Day 0 test.

SOCIALISING ACCOUNTED FOR the second-highest number of close contacts referred for testing in late November and early December, newly released data from the Department of Health shows. 

Between 16 November and 13 December, more than 20,000 close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases were tested. The results, published in recent days, give a new insight into how Covid-19 spread prior to the gradual lifting of restrictions heading into Christmas.

Retail re-opened at the start of December, followed by restaurants on 4 December. Restrictions on household visits weren’t lifted until 18 December – but around that time public health officials were already sounding warning bells about a sharp increase in transmission.

Household settings made up the largest number of close contacts referred for a Day Zero test (6,475). Of these close contacts, 1,373 positive tests were recorded – 0r 21%. 

Socialising – which is defined as meeting a person or group outside of your own home or workplace – resulted in 3,059 close contact tests (this could include visits to other homes, in addition to socialising in restaurants). 

This yielded 326 positive results or 11% positivity. 

Day Zero testing is arranged as soon as a person is informed they have been in close contact with a confirmed case.

Day 7 testing is arranged on the seventh day from last contact with a confirmed case and is carried out in addition to Day Zero testing.

Primary school settings accounted for the third-highest number of close contacts referred for testing by setting – a total of 3,430 tests results were reported during this period resulting in a positivity rate of just 4% (133). 

Screenshot 2021-01-25 at 16.04.28 - Display 2 Source: Department of Health

The HSE’s Contact Management Programme’s weekly report on 17 December shows that, closer to Christmas in the days following Level 5 restrictions being lifted, 25% of household contacts referred for testing between 7 and 13 December later tested positive for Covid-19. 

A total of 537 test results were reported in social settings with a positivity rate of 13%. 

There has been considerable debate during Ireland’s Third Wave about what lead to an unprecedented surge in cases in December. 

It is clear looking at this data that people were mixing before restrictions were lifted, Chair of NPHET’s Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group Professor Philip Nolan told TheJournal.ie.

The number of close contact tests between 6 and 13 December was 8,404 – a 34% increase compared to the previous week.

The average number of close contacts rose from 3.6 per case on 7 December to 4.1 on 13 December. 

“The primary mode by which the virus transmits is social contact, whether inside the home or outside the home,” said Nolan. 

“Once it gets into your home there’s quite a high attack rate.”

That is one of the reasons why NPHET recommended that Government opt to either open hospitality or allow household visits in December, said Nolan – but not both.

Level 5 restrictions will remain in place until 5 March, the Government announced this week. 

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It said re-opening schools is a priority and that restrictions will be lifted gradually as vaccines are rolled out. 

Screenshot 2021-01-27 at 15.20.26 - Display 2 Source: Department of Health

Professor Pete Lunn, Head of the ESRI Behavioural Research Unit and Member of the Covid-19 Communications & Advisory Committee said last Wednesday that people’s willingness to adhere to restrictions has helped reduce transmission during Ireland’s Third Wave. 

“People have changed their behaviour markedly since Christmas,” said Lunn. “Particularly young people, that’s what’s causing infections to come down.”

Speaking on RTE’s Today with Claire Byrne, Lunn said that “almost one year into this pandemic at no point has people’s resolve really cracked.

“What drives people’s behaviour, how much they leave their homes, what they do when they leave their homes, is their level of anxiety about catching the disease and giving it to others.”

“For now there’s is no sign that we’re just going to give up … but we’ve a long way to go,” said Lunn, adding that “we relaxed our guard too quickly” in November. 

“Young adults in particular started going out and mingling more once cases started falling and our progress stalled [by early December],” Lunn said.

“We cannot afford to do that this time. We’ve had a much bigger spike, the numbers are coming down but we have to stick with it.”

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