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'We have passed what is the worst of this disease': The key points you need to know from tonight's NPHET briefing

A round-up of NPHET’s press briefing at the Department of Health this evening.

Image: Sasko Lazarov via RollingNews.ie

PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICIALS confirmed a further 829 cases of Covid-19 and six deaths in Ireland as Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn led this evening’s press briefing of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) addressing the Covid-19 crisis. 

This evening’s figures mean that there have now been a total of 204,397 cases of Covid-19 in Ireland, along with 3,687 deaths. 

Here’s what was discussed at this evening’s briefing:

Why are case numbers still relatively high?

Professor Philip Nolan explained that while we are seeing a welcome reduction in the numbers of people being admitted to hospital as well as those being sent to ICU, the daily case rate is proving stubborn. 

However, Nolan said this can be explained by the reintroduction of testing for asymptomatic close contacts of confirmed cases. 

This testing regime was suspended over Christmas due to the pressures put on the health system by mass infection. 

The other aspect is an increase in the number of asymptomatic cases which are now being reported. 

“So, when testing of close contacts is suspended the proportion of cases asymptomatic drops to about 10%. Over the last 10 days, the proportion of cases asymptomatic has risen again from 10% to very close to 20% depending on how you measure it.

“So both of those are indicating that the resumed testing of close contacts is leading to increased detection of asymptomatic disease, and is increasing case numbers by reintroducing cases that we wouldn’t have detected, two or three weeks ago.”

The South African variant and vaccine concerns 

There are just 11 confirmed cases of the so-called South African variant in Ireland. Virologist Cillian De Gascun said all 11 of these cases were as a direct result of travel and that the main strain of infections in Ireland (over 75%) is the British variant. 

South Africa itself suspended the start of its AstraZeneca inoculation programme over concerns the shot does not work on the SA variant, with WHO experts due to meet to discuss the vaccine already facing questions about its efficacy for over-65s.

Dr Glynn said that while all variants of the disease are concerning, there are still three vaccines which work to suppress the most prevalent variants Ireland is seeing. 

“Early preliminary information on the AstraZeneca vaccine in relation to the South African variant suggests that it may not be as good in that, in that for that particular variant.

“As I said, the confidence intervals are really, really wide and by that I mean there’s a huge amount of uncertainty about what’s been reported. And it’s simply too early to conclude so of course, you’re monitoring the situation and are monitoring the variant in Brazil as well.

“And a key part of the challenge is to keep those variants out. And when they do, as they will, arrive on this island to identify them, and contain them as swiftly as possible and ensure that there isn’t any onward spread. And hopefully, so far we’ve managed to do that from relation to South Africa.”

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Hope for summer

Dr Glynn said he is not one to give specific timings on when we might be able to get back to normal, but he did say that he believes there is reason to be optimistic for the future and that we have come through the worst of this pandemic. 

He said the nation has “already passed what is the worst of this disease” and added that we will not have to endure what we did during January of this year. 

“I think there are many reasons to be optimistic and have confidence that that’s the case, first and foremost, amongst them is the, is, is the performance of the population over the past number of weeks, and their willingness to keep going with these measures to get case counts low,” Dr Glynn said.

When can two vaccinated people meet? 

One question posed to NPHET this evening was if it could say when two groups of vaccinated people may be able to mix, for example, a healthcare worker visiting a parent in a nursing home.  

NPHET was unable to give an exact timeline on this and said it was too early in the vaccination programme to start discussing when certain groups can start meeting others. 

However, Dr Glynn said the medical world is waiting on an “avalanche” of data to come through over the next four weeks. It is hoped that this will show that the vaccinations currently circulating help reduce the transmissibility of the disease. 

While NPHET would not be drawn on precise details of reopening, Professor Philp Nolan explained how we are on track to reduce our cases to between 200-400 a day by the end of the month if we continue to act as we have been doing since January. 

This, he said, was still a “very high” rate of infection but that it will give us “more options than we have today”.

You can sign up to TheJournal.ie’s coronavirus newsletter below. Tomorrow’s edition will include further details from the briefing.

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