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Coronavirus: How likely is it to come to Ireland? And can the health service cope with an outbreak?

The State has a “mitigation” strategy ready to roll out if the “containment” strategy fails.

Workers wearing protective suits spraying disinfectant in Seoul, South Korea.
Workers wearing protective suits spraying disinfectant in Seoul, South Korea.
Image: Lee Jong-Chul AP/PA Images

TO DATE, THERE have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus Covid-19 in Ireland, but there are growing fears that the virus could arrive here following an outbreak in Italy. 

Three people have died in Italy, where there have been over 150 cases to date – the highest number of cases in a country outside Asia.

As a result, Italy has become the first European country to take drastic isolation measures as it grapples to get the outbreak under control. 

Since Sunday, more than 50,000 residents in 11 towns in northern Italy have been put under quarantine.

Virtually all traffic is banned from entering the “red zone”, with exemptions for those such as police, medical personnel and lorries carrying essential supplies. Similar rules have been implemented for those leaving the area. 

So, with the virus now progressing through Europe, just how prepared is Ireland for a potential outbreak? 

Firstly, what general advice has the HSE and the government issued? 

The HSE has said there is no need to follow any advice in relation to coronavirus if you have: 

  • Not been to mainland China
  • Not been in contact with a person who has coronavirus
  • Not been to a healthcare facility where patients with coronavirus were treated
  • Recently returned from Hong Kong or Macau and have not travelled through mainland China

People will only need to be tested for coronavirus if they have symptoms and have in the last 14 days been: 

  • In close contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus 
  • To mainland China (this does not include Hong Kong to Macau)
  • In a healthcare centre or hospital where patients with coronavirus were being treated

Advice for people who have recently travelled to China can be found here

If a doctor thinks a person needs a test for coronavirus, they will tell them where the test will be carried out. They will also tell them when to expect the results. 

People are also being advised to avoid all non-essential travel to China. 

People are being asked not to use a face mask if they feel well and do not have symptoms. The HSE said there is no evidence that using masks is of any benefit if a person is not sick. 

In updated advice yesterday, the Department of Foreign Affairs told citizens not to travel to affected areas in Italy.

“To find out if the area to which you are travelling is an affected area, please consult with your transport and accommodation providers, the Regional Government website of the region in question or if you are already in Italy, call 1500,” it said.

How likely is it to arrive in Ireland?

Given the virus has infected so many across Europe – including over 200 in Italy and at least a dozen in the UK – authorities here admit that there is now a greater risk of a case being confirmed in Ireland. 

Speaking yesterday, Minister for Health Simon Harris confirmed this stance.

“The chances of a coronavirus case in Ireland or indeed anywhere in the European Union outside of Italy has significantly increased but it’s really important that we act in accordance with best health advice,” he said. 

It follows a statement late Sunday night from the State’s National Public Health Emergency Team. 

“We remain in a containment phase and, to date, there have been no confirmed cases of Covid-19 here,” it said.

“However, clearly the international situation is evolving. We will work with counterparts at the ECDC and WHO over the coming days to fully assess and incorporate the implications of these developments into our approach in Ireland.”

Are we doing enough at airports and ports?

Precautions to test and isolate people who potentially have the virus have already been highlighted.

The Irish Times reported last month that guidance had been issued to Irish airports about the threat of the coronavirus. 

Last week, TheJournal.ie reported that emergency services were on hand to meet a Ryanair plane that had just returned to Dublin from Poland where two passengers had fallen ill during the flight.

A spokesperson for the airline confirmed this was done as a precaution and that the pair tested negative for “any virus”.

Future mitigating measures could be implemented, given the proximity of Italy to Ireland and other nations in the EU.

Minister Simon Harris said advice relating to “mass gatherings” including the Ireland v Italy Six Nations game in less than two weeks will reviewed today due to coronavirus concerns.

Harris said there are “no plans as of now” to cancel the match or any other mass gatherings in the future, including the large St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin city centre next month. 

How is Ireland dealing with people who have displayed symptoms? And what happens if they’re diagnosed?

Currently, information is being provided on HSE, Department of Health and Department of Foreign Affairs websites in relation to dealing with the coronavirus. 

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday, Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan said information is being made available for the public and frontline health professionals, such as GPs, that “gives clarity to individuals as to what they should do having travelled back from any areas where they have concerns, what symptoms they need to look out for and what they should do”.

According to the Department of Health, any person concerned that they may have symptoms of coronavirus should “immediately isolate themselves from others and phone their doctor”.

If a patient was diagnosed, they would remain in isolation.

“In line with our Containment Protocol, a full investigation into other people who may have been in contact with this patient will be under way,” the department says. This is known as contact tracing.

Appropriate measures aimed at preventing further spread (containment measures) will be taken.

Minister Simon Harris, meanwhile, yesterday advised any members of the public who feel unwell and who may have been in contact with anyone who has the Covid-19 virus or who has come from a region where there has been an outbreak, to contact their GP by phone or contact HSE Live online or by phone. 

Is there was an outbreak in Ireland, would enforced quarantine protocols be rolled out? 

In short, no.

Holohan told Morning Ireland that “as things stand, enforced quarantine is not part of the plans we would have here”, if an outbreak was to occur. 

People are being asked to isolate themselves from other people if in the last 14 days they have been close to a confirmed coronavirus case, recently been to China and developed symptoms, or recently been to a healthcare centre or hospital where patients with coronavirus were being treated and have developed symptoms. 

If there is a case of coronavirus in Ireland, health professionals will try to contact anyone who has been in contact with the infected person – the containment protocol mentioned above.

The HSE said those who are not contacted “are extremely unlikely to catch coronavirus”.

The Department of Health meanwhile has said that the country is currently in the containment phrase.

“This means that, irrespective of case severity, all efforts are focused on identifying cases and their contacts early, in order to prevent further transmission (secondary spread),” it says.

However, Ireland is prepared to initiate a second mitigation phase if necessary.

“This will be activated where containment is no longer effective in controlling the spread of Covid-19 (Coronavirus). In this phase, our focus will be on identifying the cases who are most severely unwell,” the department adds.

Are our hospitals ready to deal with a major outbreak?

Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan said the most likely scenario that will happen in Ireland is “cases occurring in small numbers”. 

Taking this into account, he said: “We think our hospital system will be in a position to cope well with that.” 

Holohan noted that there have already been suspected cases in Ireland and that “hospitals have coped and done a really good job on that”, rolling out “infection protection and control arrangements”. 

There have been 79 negative tests results reported in relation to the coronavirus in Ireland. 

Holohan admitted that if there is a more extensive outbreak in Ireland, it will put pressure on Ireland’s health system. 

“It will, of course, create pressure on our intensive care facilities and that’s why each of the hospitals around the country has a plan to enable it to identify how to increase capacity should that be necessary, how to prioritise admissions to intensive care should that be necessary,” Holohan said. 

However, he said situations like that will be part of a “mitigation” strategy. This currently is not in place. 

“Now, the emphasis is on containment. We still are maximising our attempts to try contain and limit the spread of this. That’s the phase we’re in as opposed to mitigation.” 

People who have queries in relation to the coronavirus can contact HSE Live on 1850 241 850. 

About the author:

Hayley Halpin & Sean Murray

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