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NPHET set to move briefings to once a week from May as vaccines rolled out

Health officials are considering holding only one briefing a week from May.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn
Image: Leah Farrell

HEALTH OFFICIALS ARE considering reducing the number of briefings from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) to once a week if disease levels continue to improve and as Ireland’s vaccine rollout ramps up.

NPHET currently holds biweekly press conferences but is considering holding only one briefing a week from May onwards, The Journal understands, with one member of the team saying it is “strongly being considered”. 

The briefings, currently lead by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn, have become a regular occurrence since the start of the pandemic and have seen a range of health officials gather in front of journalists to announce the latest data from the pandemic, including the number of people who have died and the latest number of positive cases as well as updates on disease trajectory. 

NPHET first held nightly briefings Monday to Friday at the start of the pandemic but this was reduced to twice weekly press conferences last June. 

Dr Glynn has said said public health officials are not predicting a fourth wave – or another lockdown – but it remains a possibility if restrictions are eased too quickly.

In his opening statement to the Oireachtas Health Committee on Tuesday, Dr Glynn said NPHET will continue to recommend to government a “cautious approach” and the “gradual and phased” easing of measures, warning that moving too quickly could spark a fourth wave.

“While significant progress is being made in controlling the disease and in rolling out vaccines, we still have a high level of infection, we are dealing with a much more transmissible virus than last year, and the absolute number of people fully protected through vaccination remains low,” Dr Glynn said.

He said a further wave of infection can be substantially mitigated if levels of social contact across the population remain largely unchanged over the next six weeks.

“The priority must, for the coming weeks, remain on maintaining control over the disease, until vaccination can offer a widespread population level of protection.”

Dr Glynn said he is aware of the “understandable levels of fatigue” among the public but “we have more reasons to be hopeful now than at any other time in the pandemic”. 

He said that good progress is being made on the trajectory of the pandemic with the average number of close contacts holding “remarkably low and steady over” the last month.

“This is proving critical to preventing the spread of the virus. Hospital and ICU numbers are also moving in the right direction,” he said.

As of 12 April 2021, 1,076,216 doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been administered in Ireland. A total of 758,763 people have received their first dose and 317,453 people have received their second dose.

As the vaccine programme rolls on, Glynn said health officials are continually strengthening key elements of the response, crediting the HSE with developing capacity and capability across its testing and contact tracing service and a range of further enhancements, including the introduction of walk-in testing centres.

Walk-in test centres are set up in communities with comparatively high rates of Covid-19. Anyone within a 5km radius of the test centre can avail of a test if they have not previously tested positive for Covid-19.

AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson

Following the decision by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) to recommend that the AstraZeneca vaccine only be used in Ireland for those over the age of 60, Dr Glynn said there is concern about vaccine hesitancy and officials will be working to address people’s legitimate concerns.

On the impact of the change, Dr Glynn said the vaccine only accounts for 20% of the total stocks over the next eight weeks and there are still many people who have not been vaccinated yet and who are eligible for this particular vaccine.

He said he expects some people over the age of 60 will get their vaccine earlier than they otherwise would have.

Meanwhile, it was announced on Tuesday that Johnson & Johnson is to “proactively delay” the rollout of its Covid-19 vaccine to Europe as US health agencies recommended a precautionary pause in the use of the jab.

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The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier issued a joint statement to recommend the vaccine be paused “out of an abundance of caution” after six cases of a rare type of blood clot were reported.

The agencies said that six people who experienced the clots were between the ages of 18 and 48, were women, and that symptoms occurred 6 to 13 days after vaccination.

The company itself has said that it will be working with authorities in both the US and Europe in regard to the reported blood clots. 

It says that it is aware of “an extremely rare disorder involving people with blood clots in combination with low platelets in a small number of individuals” who have received its Covid-19 vaccine.  

The European Medicines Agency [EMA] has said it will make a decision on the J&J vaccine next week. 

Ireland is scheduled to receive 40,800 doses of the single-shot J&J Covid-19 vaccine this month, and over 600,000 in total up to the end of June. 

Ireland, meanwhile, is set to receive over 500,000 additional doses of the BioNtech/Pfizer vaccine over the next three months as part of a wider EU agreement. 

BioNTech/Pfizer is bringing forward delivery of 50 million doses to the second quarter, starting this month, and negotiations are underway with it to supply 1.8 billion doses of a second-generation of its mRNA vaccine to combat variants, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced on Wednesday. 

The 50 million doses were initially scheduled for the fourth quarter of the year. 

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