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HSE reporting 'around 100 cases a day' of people with between 20 and 30 close contacts

The health service says Covid-19 is now presenting a “very alarming” challenge.

HSE CEO Paul Reid at today's briefing
HSE CEO Paul Reid at today's briefing
Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE of the HSE has warned that Covid-19 is now presenting a “very alarming” challenge to the health service following a surge in cases over Christmas.

Paul Reid said that rapidly growing case numbers and high numbers of close contacts had led to “an unprecedented and toxic combination of potential scenarios” and made the health service’s worst fears about the virus become a reality.

He revealed that the HSE is now hearing from around 100 Covid-19 patients a day who have between 20 and 30 close contacts.

Reid claimed that the current situation will push Ireland’s testing limit to capacity in the coming days, with the system approaching the point of “diminishing returns” because of how quickly Covid-19 is spreading and rising numbers of close contacts.

“You just can’t build capacity to chase and follow what’s happening in the community right now,” he said.

He added that only an adherence to social restrictions was needed to help stop the transmission of the virus.

“Much of our worst concerns that we would have outlined before Christmas have now been realised,” Reid said.

“That’s what I describe as an unprecedented and toxic combination of potential scenarios, which is a high level and rapidly growing number of cases, combined with positivity levels that we haven’t seen in such a long time.”

His remarks came as Cabinet meets to discuss fresh restrictions across the country, with the Taoiseach expected to announce a ban on household visits, the closure of gyms and non-essential retail and a 5km travel limit.   

A further thirteen deaths and 1,718 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed by health officials this evening, the third time a daily record of case numbers has been set in the past week. 

This afternoon’s weekly briefing by the health service about its response to the pandemic heard that the reproductive number for the virus is now 1.8.

Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry warned that even a fall in the number to 1.4 would mean over 2,000 new cases per day by mid-January and potentially 3,000 new cases per day by the end of next month.

“The situation right now is very alarming and it is high risk,” Reid said.

“We’re all at extremely high risk in many parts of the country, indeed all over the country, of becoming infected with the Covid virus.”

The HSE’s National Lead for Testing and Tracing Niamh O’Beirne revealed that the health service had seen a 41% increase in the demand for Covid-19 testing in the last seven days.

She outlined how the positivity rate for tests – which was 5.2% on 18 December – has risen to around 10% in the last few days and to around 20% yesterday, adding that this was likely to increase further in the coming days.  

Contact tracing has also increased from 9,000 calls per week at the beginning of December to 45,000 calls per week.

The number of close contacts is also rising daily and stands at an average of six per confirmed case.

Colm Henry said Ireland was at a phase where there is “widespread community transmission and multiple outbreaks” across the country.

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“I don’t think anybody would would say that the status quo can prevail, because if it does it’s going to increase exponentially,” he said.

The Taoiseach is expected to address the country to outline the latest restrictions after 6pm.

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