Sam Boal

Surgeries and outpatient appointments deferred at five hospitals over Covid-related staff absences

The CMO has warned it is ‘simply not safe’ for people to meet in large numbers to celebrate the New Year.

LAST UPDATE | Dec 31st 2021, 7:40 PM

STAFF ABSENCES RELATED to Covid-19 at the UL Hospitals Group has led to the deferral of the majority of its scheduled surgery and outpatient appointments at five hospitals in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary next week.

The group’s chief executive, Colette Cowen, said the deferral would take effect from next Tuesday to Friday, at University Hospital Limerick; Ennis Hospital; Nenagh Hospital; St John’s Hospital; Croom Orthopaedic Hospital.

Services at University Maternity Hospital Limerick, where visiting restrictions were announced on Thursday, due to an outbreak of Covid-19, are not affected.

“The high levels of Covid-19 infection across our communities is having a significant impact on staffing levels and therefore it is imperative that we take the necessary precautions to ensure that time critical and emergency care can go ahead,” Cowen said.

The group said that “a significant surge in Covid-19 activity across society”, has led it to “anticipate that an increase in staff absences will have a significant impact on services over the coming weeks”.

392 staff are off work and self-isolating, “having either tested positive for Covid-19, been designated as a close contact or deemed high risk”.

Patients impacted by the deferral of devices are to be contacted directly by the hospital in advance, and “the curtailment of services are being kept under continuous review by the UL Hospitals Group Crisis Management Team”.

A number of patient services will remain unaffected, including, Dialysis & Acute Fracture Clinic (UHL); Cancer services (oncology and haematology day ward; haematology and oncology OPD clinics; medical oncology clinics; rapid access clinics); Other outpatient clinics such as time-critical only following clinical decision, with patients being contacted in advance.

Paediatric clinics; ante-natal clinic; colposcopy clinic; diabetes in pregnancy clinic; elective c-sections and induction of labour (at UMHL)
 are also operating as normal.

Cowan urged people to use local injury clinics, family doctors, out-of-hours GPs, pharmacies, as an alternative to the Emergency Department at UHL unless presenting for life-threatening emergencies.

New Year’s Eve

The Chief Medical Officer has warned that it is ‘simply not safe’ for people to meet in large numbers this evening to celebrate New Year’s.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Dr Tony Holohan said that given the record-breaking level of Covid in the community that it was important for people to take steps to protect themselves against infection.

The current government guidelines state that up to four households can meet indoors, but Holohan said that following significant discussion in recent days there is no difference between his views and those of Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

“I think the very legitimate thing that people can say is that right now, ‘what’s the most effective thing that I can do as an individual to protect myself?’,” Holohan told the programme.

Meeting up in large numbers of four households at this point in time, given the levels of infection that we have, is simply not safe. I think it’s important for people to hear that message and to take those measures themselves.

He stressed that due to the vaccine rollout, far fewer people are becoming severely ill with the virus compared to last year, meaning the record-breaking case numbers are resulting in far fewer hospitalisations than might otherwise be the case.

However, he added that while the Omicron variant, now dominant in Ireland, does appear to pose less risk of severe illness, this is somewhat negated by how widely it has spread.

“We have this almost paradoxical situation that something that represents a lower risk to an individual can still be a bigger problem for a population,” he said, warning of further strain on the health service.

Holohan was speaking following significant changes to Ireland’s testing regime and isolation guidelines yesterday, aimed at freeing up testing capacity and easing disruption to businesses and essential services caused by large numbers of people becoming infected with the virus.

This includes the increased use of antigen tests by people under the age of 40, representing a significant u-turn in policy by public health experts who previously advised against the use of the home-administered tests.

Antigen tests provide a result in less time than PCR but are less likely to detect the virus in certain circumstances, such as during the early stages of infection.

a-display-unit-that-should-contain-covid-19-rapid-antigen-tests-sits-empty-at-a-tesco-store-in-dublin-as-demand-for-tesings-soars-after-christmas-has-led-to-a-shortage-in-availabilty-picture-date-mo An empty antigen test stand at a shop in Dublin. Alamy Alamy

Dr Holohan defended the move, saying it has always been NPHET’s advice to use antigen tests in localised outbreak settings, and that the incidence of the disease is so high now in the country that it allows health experts “to be sure of the value of this test”.

The move was criticised by the Infectious Disease Society of Ireland, who said there was little to be gained from confirming a positive antigen result with a follow-up PCR.

Holohan highlighted that currently a positive PCR result is required to trigger public health responses like contact tracing, and may also be required for sick pay and travel passes.

Holohan added that due to constraints with Ireland’s testing capacity right now – which is processing a record number of tests – we are not seeing a true picture of the scale of the virus.

Daily case numbers could in fact be as high as 30,000, he said, with modelling suggesting that true case counts are likely 40% higher.

A representative body for retailers is calling for the government to adjust the rules for close contacts who must restrict their movements.

Retail Excellence Vice-Chair Jean McCabe said the government has “gone some way towards acknowledging the scale of the crisis by cutting the period of isolation from ten to seven days for those who themselves have received a positive result and have been boosted or have been infected in the previous three months”.

“However, our close contact rules represent a very serious problem and need to be reduced. They are having a much bigger impact on retail staffing at the moment than positive cases – many businesses are not able to roster enough staff to even open because so many people are close contacts,” McCabe said.

“We understand that cases are skyrocketing yet the response with regard to close contacts does not appear to be proportionate to the threat posed by this variant.”

Covid testing 002 A queue for PCR tests at the HSE's testing site in the Croke Park handball alley. Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

Professor Philip Nolan, chair of NPHET’s epidemiological modelling advisory group, said it could take another week for the impact of the high caseload on ICU figures to be seen.

The new testing regime advises that people aged 4 to 39 with symptoms should isolate immediately and take regular antigen tests, only seeking a PCR if they receive a positive antigen result.

They should continue to isolate until 48 hours after their symptoms subside. Anyone with an underlying condition that puts them at high risk of severe illness or anyone with a clinical concern should contact their GP.

Healthcare workers and anyone over the age of 40 should continue to isolate and seek a PCR once they develop symptoms. 

Meanwhile, confirmed cases who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster dose or was recently infected with the virus will be required to isolate for just seven days following symptom onset, and restrict movements as much as possible for a further three.

Contains reporting by David Raleigh

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