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Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
Coronavirus

'The virus is absolutely rampant': Up to 15,000 people per day referred for tests as Covid surge takes hold

“Everybody is at extremely high risk of catching the virus,” the chief executive of the HSE said.

AS MANY AS 15,000 people with symptoms of Covid-19 are being referred for testing per day, with the chief executive of the HSE warning that the virus is ‘rampant’ across the country.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Paul Reid warned of significant challenges facing the health service as widespread community transmission of the virus takes root across the country.

He added that 25,000 people are expected to be vaccinated by the end of the next week.

“I have no doubt 2021 will be a much brighter year [than 2020]” he told the programme,  describing the start as “not great”.

What we’ve definitely seen is a whole set of worst-case scenarios come together. The virus is absolutely rampant in the community.
Everybody is at extremely high risk of catching the virus. We really need our vulnerable groups to be on their highest guard.

Reid said that case numbers are likely now hitting 3,000 per day, but a legacy computer system used to log cases is unable to manage the volume of cases that labs are now processing.

The decision to no longer test close contacts of confirmed cases to relieve pressure on the system was not an indication that the testing regime had failed, he said.

In the middle of December, around 9,000 contacts per week were being contacted by the HSE. 13,000 were contacted yesterday alone, and Reid said tests must be reserved for the most symptomatic among those.

Close contacts are instead being asked to restrict their movements for 14 days, and to contact their GP if they have symptoms.

Also speaking this morning, the HSE’s chief clinical officer Colm Henry said the system used for logging cases had been “overwhelmed”, but stressed that this had no impact on those diagnosed with the virus and contact tracing.

He told Today with Katie Hannon that the number of referrals from general practitioners for people who are symptomatic is now exceeding 15,000 per day, putting the testing regime under significant strain.

The average number of close contacts per confirmed case is now 6.3, with some counties recording a positivity rate approaching 30%.

He urged the public to act as though ‘everybody you meet could have the virus’.

“We’re concerned right now, based on the patterns we’re seeing, we’re projecting with a fairly conservative estimate that we’ll be seeing 1,200 admissions or so to hospital with Covid and perhaps 2,000 by the end of January,” Henry warned, stressing that these trends could change with Level 5 restrictions, although there is a lag time.

It’s quite frankly unthinkable that we won’t all adhere to these [Level 5] measures because we can’t let that scenario played out. 

The pressure is increasing on the public health system with this increased caseload and higher numbers of people developing severe illness, but there is still capacity, Paul Reid said:

We’re still managing. Private hospitals are supporting us in terms of some other activities, services that they’re supporting us, so there’s a whole suite of supports they are giving us right now, and we’re very grateful for them.
We are actually still in discussions with them about should we need further surge capacity, and we expect to come to an agreement with private hospitals in that regard. 

Progress is being made with vaccinations, despite this new surge. Of the 2,000 doses distributed to four hospitals in recent days, more than 1,800 have been administered.

That figure is expected to hit 25,000 by the end of next week as the roll-out is expanded to nursing homes and all hospital groups when further doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are delivered.

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