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‘Better than anything we could have hoped for’: The key points you need to know from tonight's NPHET briefing

Here’s your round-up of what we learned from NPHET’s press briefing at the Department of Health this evening.

PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICIALS this evening confirmed a further 309 cases of Covid-19 and eight additional deaths in Ireland.

This evening’s figures mean that there has now been a total of 242,402 cases of Covid-19 in Ireland, along with 4,820 deaths.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn led tonight’s NPHET briefing, alongside the chair of the NPHET Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group Professor Philip Nolan, and Dr Lorraine Doherty of the HSE.

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

Case count

  • The average number of close contacts per confirmed case has stayed at 2.6

There was a significant tone of positivity at this evening’s briefing, with health officials saying that the numbers reported today “are better than anything we could have hoped for two weeks ago”.

Chair of the Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group Professor Philip Nolan said there have been significant positive improvements against all indications of disease over the last fortnight. 

“We remain in a positive but relatively high-risk position,” said Nolan. 

“The seven-day average sitting at 400 cases per day, the five day average at 358. The fact that the five-day average is below the seven-day average is one of the indicators that we are seeing a progressive decrease in case counts, each day over the last ten to 14 days.”

Professor Nolan said the numbers in hospital are below 200 for the first time since mid-December, and that an uplift in hospital admissions following Easter and St Patrick’s Day has not materialised.

He said the reproduction number of the virus is “very hard to estimate when things are as volatile as they are” but the best estimate is that it is “between .7 and 1″.

Reflecting on today’s figures, acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said the country had come a huge distance, noting that the 14-day incidence is lower than it’s been at any point since Christmas, and  ICU numbers are better than they’ve been at any point in 2021.

“We’re in a much better position than we thought we would be and that is down first and foremost to people listening to the messages and sticking with this,” said Glynn. 

“If we were at the EU average, we’d be reporting between 1,500-1,600 cases today. The public’s efforts have made an enormous difference.”

“We do have a way to go,” he added, saying that hopefully, the vaccine rollout will begin to take on some of the load the people individually and collectively taken on over the last year and a half.

Professor Nolan said it was remarkable that the average number of close contacts per confirmed case stayed 2.6.

“We’ve had a near-constant level of close contact, since mid-February, and it’s that constant level of close contact that’s keeping the disease under control. And at this point may even be shrinking the epidemic.”

Vaccines and variants 

  • 46 confirmed cases of the South Africa variant 

Professor Nolan said we may be seeing signs of a protective effect of vaccination in the wider community but that it is still “early days”.

“Case counts appear to be falling twice as quickly those cohorts prioritised for vaccination. It’s not yet complete, and the protection is not yet complete, so these are very early signs,” he said, adding that most of the protection for people 65 and above is because of their ongoing effort to reduce any risk of contracting the virus. 

He warned that until more of the population has received the jab, Ireland remains in a “positive but relatively high-risk position”.

When asked about the possibility of extending the gap between doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine, Dr Glynn said it would only be done on the basis of a clear public health rationale but said the extension would mean it will take longer for the population to be fully protected from the disease. 

“If you were looking at any one individual in the population, your preference would be to give them two doses four weeks apart and have them fully protected after five or six weeks.

“But when you look at it at a population level and in terms of everything else that’s going on with this disease, you may have a different perspective on that, and there may be benefits to getting lots and lots of people vaccinated with a first dose and getting them partially protected.

“Or you may wish not to do that, in the interests of getting everyone fully protected as soon as you feasibly can”.

Preliminary data shows that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not as effective against the South African variant, which is why NPHET is closely monitoring its presence in the country – there are 46 confirmed cases so far. 

Dr Doherty said such variants are the reason mandatory hotel quarantine was introduced “to ensure that we identify every case that might arrive in Ireland, and contact traces and follow up”. 

Dr Ronan Glynn said there is a concern about all variants but the important thing is that they are not allowed to replicate.

Walk-in centres and hotel quarantine 

  • 19 case of Covid-19 in quarantine hotels so far 

With four new walk-in centres to open next week,  Dr Lorraine Doherty and Professor Nolan gave an idea of the benefit of having free testing so readily available. 

So far 31,647 people have been tested at these centres and 847 positive cases have been picked up from the walk-in referrals, according to Dr Doherty. 

Professor Nolan said the clinics have picked up cases in asymptomatic people but also in people who for one reason or another found it difficult to access testing or healthcare by other routes.

On mandatory hotel quarantine, Dr Doherty said there have been 19 cases of Covid-19 – 18 residents and one staff member.

She said most are the UK B117 variant, four are probable variants of concern – either P1 or South African – but confirmed results on those are not available yet.

Looking ahead, Nolan said with the full return of schools this week we should expect to see an increase of cases in schools and among younger people as this occurred during the first phase of school reopenings. 

On returning to the workplace, Dr Glynn said people should continue to work remotely in the months ahead as there are still outbreaks in workplace settings.

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