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'We can be optimistic for an enjoyable summer': 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.

Image: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICIALS this evening confirmed a further 520 new cases of Covid-19 and one death in Ireland.

This evening’s figures bring the total number of Covid-19  cases in Ireland to 231,119 and the number of deaths to 4,588.

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, HIQA Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Health Technology Assessment Dr Máirín Ryan and Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Dr. Cillian de Gascun, Medical Virologist.

Here’s the key points that were discussed at this evening’s briefing.

Household transmission

  • Nearly half of outbreaks that are recorded are being identified in private households.

Chair of the Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group Professor Philip Nolan laid out how and where the virus is being transmitted.

“We do know where the majority of transmissions are occurring,” Professor Nolan said.

In the week of 8 March, 24% of cases have been attributed to community transmission, meaning that the source of the infection cannot be tracked.

11% of cases in that week are still under investigated. 3% are related to a healthcare setting and 2% are related to travel.

In the remaining 60% of cases, the virus was transmitted through close contact with a confirmed case. Of those, about one-third of the close contacts were associated with a wider outbreak.

“Our picture is dominated by a large number of cases within households,” Professor Nolan said.

He said that just under half of outbreaks are coming from private households.

Once an infection comes into a household, up to 35% of the contacts within the household will subsequently become infected, according to Nolan.

“The priority has to be to prevent those transmissions that introduce the disease into the household,” he said.

Variants

  • NPHET is still monitoring several variants of concern and variants of interest.

26 cases of the B1351 variant (which was first identified in South Africa) and nine cases of the P1 variant (Brazil) have now been recorded in Ireland.

The B1351 and P1 strains are considered to be variants of concern.

Looking at other variants, there have been 14 cases of B1525, 13 cases of P2, and five cases of B1526.

Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Cillian de Gascun said that those three variants are “variants of interest at this point in time”, as opposed to variants of concern.

The B117 variant, which was first identified in the UK, remains the dominant strain in Ireland.

“I think because we’re so concerned about these new variants, we’ve kind of forgotten about the significance of B117 and the challenge that brings in trying to control it,” De Gascun said.

“We were hit very early here in Ireland by B1117 and quite frequently,” he said.

De Gascun said that other countries in Europe are now reaching a level of B117 that Ireland arrived at several months ago.

The differences between how countries that saw a resurgence in Covid-19 in recent months handled their response is outlined in a new HIQA report that has been submitted to NPHET.

“It’s important to feed back to people how well they have done over the last two months in managing to bring down the incidence of disease in the country,” De Gascun said.

“Ireland was hit very early because of our close relationship with the UK and we’ve done really well to bring it down to this level,” he said.

“As people are planning their activities, it really is important that we consider B117 because it’s now our endemic virus.”

Summer

  •  With vaccinations and public health measures, people should hopefully be able to enjoy the summer outdoors in a way that wouldn’t have been possible under current restrictions.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said there are reasons to be optimistic about having an enjoyable summer.

Restrictions won’t have gone away completely, but as more people are vaccinated, it is hoped that cases will decline.

Health officials have set a target of giving over 80% of people a first dose by the end of June, as well as fully protecting people aged over 70 and those at a high risk of severe disease.

“Hopefully we will have disease levels at a much lower incidence overall,” Glynn said.

From that perspective, I think we can look forward to a good summer that’s premised on outdoor activities.”

“No one is saying that we can return to normal on the 1st of July,” he cautioned.

“What we’re saying is that if we can keep this under control, if we can protect those who are most vulnerable, if we can get the majority of the population at least partially protected, and if we proceed with the basic measures that we have had in place over the last year, we can be hopeful and optimistic for an enjoyable summer that’s much better than what we’ve experienced over the past six months,” he said.

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“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to give people that level of hope and reassurance, albeit there are uncertainties as we have voice here on many occasions.”

Cases in children

  • Public health experts are concerned by an increase of cases in younger age groups but say that those infections are largely coming from sources outside of schools.

Professor Nolan said that health officials “have some concern about a possible increase in incidence in children between zero and 12 years of age that we need to see how that pans out over the coming 10 to 14 days”.

“There’s a very high level of investigation of any concerns about transmission in schools, but at the same time, we are seeing possibly an increase in incidence in children of schoolgoing age, which we’ll have to monitor and analyze very closely over the coming fortnight,” he said.

Dr Glynn added that there is evidence pointing to cases being transmitted to children outside of schools themselves.

“It’s not something people will want to hear, but we are getting reports from colleagues in public health some of the issues that we’re seeing are to do with activities outside of school,” Dr Glynn said.

Playdates are being organised, multiple households are meeting up,” he said.

“Again, not the message people want to hear, but unfortunately that’s what our public health doctors are finding in a limited number of circumstances on the ground.

“Of course, the vast majority of parents in households are continuing to do the right thing, but there have been some reports of the like which I’ve described which have led to outbreaks then linked to children who attend schools and childcare facilities.”

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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