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Close encounters: As the country gets busier, how do you know if you're a Covid-19 contact?

Contacting tracing is going to become increasingly important as bars and cafes re-open.

Socialising in cafes, pubs and restaurants will carry plenty more risks than before.
Socialising in cafes, pubs and restaurants will carry plenty more risks than before.
Image: Shutterstock/Michele Ursi

THE QUESTION OF ‘Who are you meeting?’ will take on a greater significance in the weeks, months and possibly years to come as Covid-19 requires a greater policing and recording of who exactly we meet. 

Yet this week the question wasn’t of who people meet, but where. With some pubs set to re-open at the end of the month, alongside cafes and other dining establishments, the regulations governing socialising attracted widespread attention. 

On Wednesday evening, Fáilte Ireland published a finalised set of guidelines for the re-opening of pubs and restaurants, with one requirement stating that seating time for a group will be for a maximum of 105 minutes. Fifteen minutes will then be allocated after this period to allow for the area to be cleaned and a new group seated.

Pubs will also be permitted to impose one-metre social distancing in some cases, if a two-metre distance is not possible. 

The stipulation that triggered most discussion was over meals, with pubs told that to re-open meals will have to be “substantial” and cost at least €9 – a requirement that will remain in place until 20 July, when pubs that don’t serve food are allowed reopen. 

But once the country gets used to the rules, it could be who you’re sharing that meal with – or who else is eating near you – that really matters. 

Close contact

Healthcare staff have become very familiar with the language of “close contact” and “casual contact” during the crisis, as numbers of cases racked up among HSE and healthcare workers. 

Staff have become accustomed to being told that they were a close contact or a casual contact of someone diagnosed with Covid-19 – although many staff, if they remained asymptomatic, were told to stay at work to avoid major pressures on wards and hospitals. 

In the months and weeks to come, a passing familiarity with HSE rules on contacts may become important for us all. HSE guidance, published at the end of last month, defines a close contact as: 

Anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes, face-to-face, within two metres of a person with coronavirus in any setting, for example, anyone living in the same household, or someone who has shared a closed space with a confirmed case for more than two hours.

What does this mean for someone sitting inside a socially distanced pub or restaurant in the coming weeks?

It’s hard to say. The outbreaks we’ve seen in Seoul in South Korea and, more recently, in Beijing in China, saw authorities chase to trace and isolate contacts of confirmed cases. 

The situation in Seoul is particularly relevant, since it showed the strain that can be placed on a contact tracing system once socialising returns to nearly normal. Back in May, Seoul’s mayor said 85 infections were linked to the outbreak, with health workers trying to contact more than 3,000 people of the 5,500 who visited certain nightspots.

But Korean nightclubs are very different to most Irish bars and it doesn’t necessarily follow that if a fellow diner or drinker turned out to be Covid-19 positive that you’d have to self-isolate. 

Prof Joe Barry, from the School of Medicine in Trinity College Dublin, has concerns about the pace of re-opening bars. 

“Whatever way you look at it, it will be risky. Pubs, by and large, tend to be packed. You go to them to meet people,” he said. 

However, he says public health guidelines are often not an “exact science”. 

“It’s sort of a spectrum. The closer you are to somebody else, the higher the risk,” he told TheJournal.ie. 

He says that every single outbreak would have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine who might need to be contacted and who might need to isolate. 

Context

What might public health experts consider when trying to work out who qualifies as a close contact? Time, clearly, will be crucial. 

The guidance states that a close contact is someone who “has shared a closed space with a confirmed case for more than two hours”.

Given that the latest guidance from Fáilte Ireland has said the longest time you can spend inside a re-opened pub come the end of June is 105 minutes, that might suggest many people inside at separate tables would not be treated as close contacts – that’s certainly the point of physical distancing. 

However, public health teams will likely also try to consider issues like ventilation – is there a flow of air in the pub setting, or is it an enclosed space?

Additionally, did the infected person come into prolonged contact with anyone beyond the people they shared a table with? The size and shape of the pub might also be considered. 

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How do you find out?

As the country gets busier again and our circle of contacts widen, some risks will increase. However, you only need to restrict your movement if a contact tracer contacts you to let you know you’re a close contact

There is no need to worry otherwise. 

Back in May, the country had been promised that a contact-tracing that would “augment” the process. So far, it hasn’t yet materialised. Other countries, such as Germany, have pioneered apps to supplement the process, while in the UK fierce rows have been taking place over the failure to rapidly develop a technological solution. 

In Ireland, it seems as if you’re most likely to be contacted by a human for the time being.

If you are designated as a close contact, alongside restricting your movements for 14 days, you will be referred for a Covid-19 test. But even if your test is negative, you’ll still have to restrict your movements.

Beyond that, you should monitor yourself to see if you develop any coronavirus symptoms. If you do develop symptoms, self-isolate and phone your GP. 

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