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Covid-19: Ireland's cases are rising quickly - here's why and what it means

Case numbers and hospitalisations are rapidly increasing – here’s a breakdown of the latest figures that you probably haven’t heard about.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE NUMBER OF people and patients with Covid-19 around the country is on the rise once again as Ireland is quietly fighting Omicron subvariants that are less affected by immune responses to the virus.

The minister for health has emphasised the importance of eligible people receiving a second booster vaccine – or, in general, of people coming forward for an initial vaccine if they weren’t vaccinated.

As we’ve moved away from NPHET briefings, daily figure updates, and speeches on the steps of Government Buildings, information about the progress of the virus and Ireland’s response to it is somewhat more difficult to come by.

Here, The Journal breaks down the latest Covid-19 data and speaks to an immunologist about what the spread of the Omicron subvariants means for cases and hospitalisations.

Caseload

The way that the Department of Health publishes data on Covid-19 has changed. Information on hospitalisations, ICUs, vaccinations and testing are updated daily, while case numbers and deaths are only released once each week (though still with a daily breakdown).

Case numbers are further broken down into how many were confirmed through PCR tests, which are conducted by labs and hospitals, and antigen tests that people take at home and register on the HSE website if the result is positive for Covid-19.

In the last seven days, there have been 8,751 PCR-confirmed cases and 10,799 positive antigen tests registered.

The five-day moving average of PCR cases is 1,177, compared to 638 at the time of last week’s update.

And it’s possible that some cases are going undetected.

Speaking to The Journal, DCU Professor of Immunology Christine Loscher said: “We have very restrictive access to PCR testing at the moment. There’s only certain cohorts that can actually get a PCR test now, so a lot of people are relying on their antigen testing.”

“We’re probably in a situation where a lot of people are not reporting antigen testing because our vigilance to Covid has changed,” she said.

We do know that of 33,083 PCR tests completed in the last seven days, 28.3% of those returned a positive result.

Separately, the deaths of another 26 people who died with Covid-19 have been notified in the last week.

It’s important to note that doesn’t necessarily mean the deaths occurred in the last week, but that that’s the timeframe that they were formally notified in.

In total, 7,442 people have died with Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Hospitalisations

The most concerning element of the current Covid-19 landscape is the rapid increase in the number of people with the virus admitted to hospital.

Hospital numbers had been slowly decreasing since the end of March after a massive spike that reached 1,624 people.

They fell to their lowest at only a tenth of that – 167 – on 28 May but immediately began to rise again.

By 10 June, they had doubled to 355, and in the following five days they further rose to 477 as of 15 June.

ICU cases, however, have remained more stable, ranging between 20 and 30 throughout June.

Hospitalisations June The number of Covid-19 cases in hospitals in May and June 2022 Source: Department of Health

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has warned that a rapid increase in hospitalisations would put the health service under significant strain to deliver both current requirements and to catch up on an already-significant backlog of care that was previously delayed due to the pandemic. 

Professor Loscher said the increase in hospitalisations is a consequence of case numbers rising, which is being driven by our behaviours and the spread of new Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.

“The biggest thing about the current subvariants is that we’re seeing a lot of reinfections with people that even had earlier versions of Omicron,” she explained.

“The other thing is that we are seeing that they’re a little bit more immune-evasive, which means that they’re even better than the original Omicron at avoiding your vaccine immunity or your previous immunity.”

For a while, our case numbers had been quite low, “but our behaviour is changing: people are going away on holidays, concerts are on, very few people continue to wear masks”.

“We’re all going back to normality, so it’s not surprising that we’re getting a change in case numbers. It’s also because this Omicron subvariant is better at transmitting and is more immune-evasive, so it’s a collection of all of those things.”  

She said that the “important thing to stress is that it’s likely to impact on case numbers but the vaccine seems to be still very good at preventing severity and risk of hospitalisation”.

“I think we’re going to see increases in case numbers. We’re going to see, as a consequence when case numbers go up, we are going to see a small proportion of people end up in hospital.

“But I think we can expect similar to what happened in previous case number increases with Omicron, which is that it’s not going to translate into severity and death in the way that previous variants did, so I think in that respect, there’s no huge, immediate cause for concern.”

Vaccinations

Vaccines against Covid-19 – both the initial two doses (or single dose, if applicable to the vaccine type) and booster doses – are still being administered around the country.

Yesterday, there were another 36 first doses and 45 second doses administered, bringing the total of each to 3,47,652 and 4,797,806 respectively.

There were also 730 additional doses administered and eight that were specifically for immunocompromised people receiving another dose.

The total of all booster vaccines that have been given is 3,066,680.

Only around one-third of people who are eligible for a second booster vaccine – over-65s and people who are immunocompromised – have received it, according to the health minister.

Some of that is attributable to people who had Covid-19 and must wait before receiving the booster, but he reminded those who are eligible now to receive it to come forward.

With the Omicron subvariants driving a rise in case numbers, Professor Loscher said that “the most important message is that, for people who are due their boosters, now would be a really excellent time to get it”.

“Lots of us are months out from having our booster, some people are nine months since their last vaccination.

“While people might say, ‘well, it’s not going to stop me getting Covid’ – we’re not really sure about how good a booster is going to be at preventing you getting the infection, but we absolutely know that it’s going to reduce your risk of hospitalisation and reduce the severity.”

She encouraged people over the age of 65 to obtain the fourth vaccine dose being offered if they have not already.

“We have a really good level of population immunity from previous vaccination levels and infection levels. That protection against severity from vaccination is really important,” she said.

“Hong Kong had a wave a few months ago and their death rate was huge in their over-65s, and that was because they had had a zero-Covid policy; they had no population immunity, they had very little vaccination uptake.

“So while the perception of Omicron was that it was a much milder variant, in a population that didn’t have good vaccination and that were over a certain age, it had a huge impact on deaths.

“I think that really emphasises the value of vaccinations and boosters against the variants that we’re dealing with at the moment.”

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About the author:

Lauren Boland

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