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Fewer days in isolation and more antigen testing: Department of Health releases new testing regime

There are 287 patients on trolleys in hospitals around the country today.

People queuing outside the testing centre at Croke Park today
People queuing outside the testing centre at Croke Park today
Image: Sam Boal

Updated Dec 30th 2021, 6:45 PM

THE DEPARTMENT OF Health has this evening released updated guidelines regarding PCR and antigen testing as well as changes to the amount of days those positive for Covid have to self-isolate. 

In a statement this evening, the department said it was changing the testing regime due to “very large volumes of disease” across the country. 

New rules include:

  • Symptomatic individuals aged 4-39 years should self-isolate immediately and undertake regular antigen tests rather than booking a PCR test. Anyone with an antigen test which detects COVID-19 should seek a confirmatory PCR test. Those with repeated ‘not detected’ antigen tests should continue to self-isolate until 48 hours after their symptoms have resolved. 
  • Symptomatic healthcare workers should continue to seek a PCR test. 
  • Anyone with an underlying condition which puts them at higher risk of severe disease or anyone who has a clinical concern should contact their GP. 
  • All other symptomatic people (those aged 0-3 years and those aged older than 40 years) should seek a PCR test as soon as they display symptoms of Covid. 

Self-isolation rules 

Currently, the HSE is advising that adults who receive a positive PCR test result for Covid should self-isolate for 10 days from commencement of symptoms.

However, this is being reduced to seven days, with some terms attached.

Those aged over 13, who have had their booster or are fully vaccinated should self-isolate for seven days from the onset of symptoms. They should only exit isolation after seven days if symptoms have substantially or fully resolved for the final two of those seven days.

Those exiting isolation after seven days (from days 8 to 10 post onset of symptoms) should: 

  • Limit to the greatest extent possible close contact with other people outside their household, especially in crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces 
  • Wear a face mask in crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces and where they are in close contact with other people 
  • Take an antigen test before entering crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces and prior to having close contact with other people from outside their household 
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is at higher risk of severe illness if infected with COVID-19 
  • Work from home unless it is essential to attend in person 
  • Adhere to all other basic public health protective measures. 

Earlier today, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has called for all activity except urgent care to be curtailed in the public hospital system as capacity issues mount. 

There are 287 patients on trolleys in hospitals around the country today, according to the INMO’s trolley watch figures. 

“We are yet again seeing high numbers presenting to Emergency Departments across the country with 287 patients on trolleys today,” INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said. 

“Our public health system is too small to try provide emergency care, Covid care and carry out elective treatments. Urgent elective work must be prioritised through the private hospital system,” Ní Sheaghdha said. 

Regional Hospital Mullingar, Letterkenny University Hospital, Portiuncula University Hospital have been “acting in crisis mode” in the last 48 hours “because of high numbers of people presenting to their respective emergency departments”, she said. 

The Journal reported yesterday that ambulance crews were on Tuesday night ordered to avoid bringing patients to Wexford General Hospital after the hospital’s emergency department was overrun with patients.

“Unless an urgent and workable plan is produced by the HSE, we will continue to see incidents like this well into January and February,” Ní Sheaghdha said. 

“Incidents like this are inevitable due to a lack of a plan B from the HSE when it comes to hospital capacity,” she said.

“Every year between Christmas and New Year we see a spike in attendance at our Emergency Departments but now in the context of Covid, particularly with the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it is wholly irresponsible that we still do not have a Plan B in place for our scaling up capacity within our acute hospital system,” she added.

“We need private hospitals on the pitch so our health service can act as one at this extremely difficult time.”

As of 8am yesterday morning, 586 people were in hospital with Covid-19, 93 of whom were in ICU. 

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan yesterday evening said that all current epidemiological indicators are a “cause for concern”, and that hospitalisations have been rising in recent days at levels not seen since January 2021.

“In recent days, we have seen a rise in new admissions to hospital of Covid-19 patients, at levels not seen since January 2021,” Dr Holohan said. 

“On two consecutive days this week, over 100 patients with Covid-19 were either admitted to hospital or received a “detected” test result while in hospital.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that Omicron remains a “serious threat” as it continues to spread rapidly throughout the country.

He encouraged people to avail of a booster vaccine, saying that it is the best protection against the variant.

According to Martin, there have been 2.08 million booster shots given out so far, with 417,000 of those being done in the last week.

In Northern Ireland, people will now be asked to self-isolate for seven days instead of ten, provided that they receive a negative antigen result on the sixth and seventh day.

It follows the same reduction move that England took last week for people who are fully vaccinated with a view to avoid staff absences in frontline sectors.

Tweet by @Paul Givan Source: Paul Givan/Twitter

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that the Stormont Executive met today to discuss Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, and that Omicron currently accounts for over 90% of their cases.

O’Neill said that Ministers would continue to monitor the situation and asked people to take up the booster shot and to limit their contacts with others.

Maternity hospital restrictions

At University Maternity Hospital Limerick, increased visitor restrictions and infection control measures have been put in place following an outbreak of Covid-19 on its inpatient wards.

Access for nominated support partners to UMHL inpatient wards is now “limited to one two-hour slot per day between the hours of 2pm and 8pm”, according to a statement released by the hospital this morning.

“These slots will be coordinated at ward level by our staff, who will link directly with service users and nominated support partners.”

The hospital said: “We recognise that this represents a considerable reduction in access on our inpatient wards. We will facilitate additional access for inpatients on compassionate grounds on a case-by-case basis where these restrictions are causing considerable distress.

“We are committed to increasing access for partners on our inpatient wards as soon as possible.

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“An online system is available for nominated support partners to complete a Covid-19 questionnaire in advance of attending the hospital. We also encourage partners to consider taking an antigen test in advance of attending UMHL should they have one at home.”

Management said the new restrictions only affect its inpatient wards.

It stated: “Nominated support partners continue to be permitted access to the following areas in UMHL, regardless of vaccination status, once a Covid-19 questionnaire and temperature screening has been completed at the hospital reception”.

These areas include the labour ward (throughout labour and delivery); theatre (including elective and emergency c-section); NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) / HDU (high dependency unit) which have designated time slots for fathers/parents of babies; EPAU (early pregnancy assessment unit); emergency high risk admissions; 12-week scan; anomaly scan.

The hospital urged nominated support partners “not to access the hospital if they have symptoms of Covid-19”.

The Covid outbreak was declared on an inpatient ward on 28 December “after a number of patients tested positive”, it said.

Management added that the restrictions to all inpatient wards were “a precautionary measure” and were “being introduced at a time of high community transmission which is affecting patients and staff”.

With reporting by Garreth MacNamee, David Raleigh, Lauren Boland and Tadgh McNally

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