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Leah Farrell/
test and trace

HSE says it will check if people asked to identify close contacts themselves were able to

A rapid increase in cases this month resulted in a backlog in the HSE’s contact tracing system.

LAST UPDATE | 28 Oct 2020

THE HSE HAS said that the contact tracing system is “back on track” after its capacity was surpassed due to a surge in Covid-19 cases earlier this month.

Speaking the Oireachtas Committee on Health today, National Lead for Testing and Tracing Niamh O’Beirne outlined why almost 2,000 people who received a positive Covid-19 result were told to alert their own close contacts due to a breakdown in its contact tracing system.

O’Beirne said the decision was taken to ensure that each person was informed “as quickly as possible” and to allow them to be “aware of their status and to take action to care for themselves, and protect others from infection”.

“While this was clearly not ideal and we appreciate the impact on those affected, it was deemed to be the only viable option in order to deal with the most recent cases quickly and reset the system,” she said.

“We apologise to the 1,971 people impacted and are this week going to call everyone we missed to check they were able to identify contacts and advise them to be tested.”

She said the decision was taken to “maintain effective turnaround times” for the population at large as the system “struggled with capacity”.

She told politicians that six weeks ago they were making 8,500 calls per week, but that figure had increased in the last week to more than 38,000 calls.

O’Beirne said the contact tracing system was “back on track” since 23 October and that all close contacts were being informed within 24 hours of the notification of a positive case.

She said the HSE plans to recruit up to 800 contact tracers “to ensure that we can address future demand”.

Sinn Fein’s health spokesman David Cullinane criticised the HSE for not recruiting more people over the summer months.

“If we had all of those staff in place it may have well been the case that the system may not have collapsed and you wouldn’t have had to come before the committee today to apologise to those people. So why is that recruitment only happening now?,” he asked.

In response, Ms O’Beirne said over the summer staff deployed for contact tracing had come from universities and other roles in the HSE, and many returned to their own roles.

Consequently, she said they had begun a recruitment campaign in August and they were still in the process of going through applications.

She added it was “unfortunate” that they did not have the staff necessary earlier this month.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin last week told the Dáil that the HSE or Department of Health had not informed him about the backlog with the contact tracing system when it raised, and that he found out through a news article.

It had emerged the previous day that the HSE had asked a group of people to tell their own close contacts of their positive test result and to ask them to arrange a test through their GPs to check their own infection status.

HSE chief Paul Reid apologised last week over the matter.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said that the HSE assured him that the issue of people who test positive being asked to identify and speak to their own close contacts “won’t happen again”.

- With reporting by Press Association

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