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'Cut social contacts in half' and antigen testing in schools: Key points from NPHET's briefing

There is “very good data” that the booster shots are working well and quickly, Holohan said

Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated Nov 10th 2021, 8:34 PM

THE CHIEF MEDICAL Officer is urging people to consider reducing their social interactions by half over the next two weeks in order to reduce the number of Covid-19 infections.

“If you’re planning to go out two nights a week, maybe just go out once. If you’re planning to have 10 people over to the house for a particular event, maybe just have five,” Dr. Tony Holohan told reporters at today’s NPHET briefing. 

“If we can do that, across the population, we think that could have a significant effect in terms of transmission,” he said. 

He warned that, as we enter the run-up to Christmas, the virus will have more opportunities to spread through increased “intergenerational socialisation” where families are gathering together.

However, he added that: “Christmas 2021 will be different to Christmas 2020, because of vaccination.”

This advice is being delivered in the context of what Deputy CMO Dr Ronan Glynn said was the “particularly high incidence” of Covid-19 in the community at the moment. 

He outlined that last week was the 3rd highest week in terms of cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with almost 25,000 cases reported. 

This included “a significant increase in incidence across almost all age groups”, but Glynn also pointed to “one piece of good news” which was the “concrete positive benefits of the booster programme” leading to a positive change in virus trajectory among over-80s.

There is “very good data”, Holohan added, that the booster shots are working well and quickly.

“The protection is very, very significant relative to all the people who have not yet received a booster, ” he said. Holohan urged people to attend their appointments for booster shots when they come up, particularly as the winter season approaches. 

At Fianna Fáil’s parliamentary party meeting this evening, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the “booster is key and cases are reducing in the groups who have received it”. 

“We must maintain collective behaviour and expand the booster rollout to get through the winter period. We do not want to go backwards,” Martin said.

The number of new cases of Covid-19 in Ireland today is 2,975, with 74 deaths notified in the past week, 551 people currently in hospital, and 89 in ICU.

Other main points from today’s NPHET briefing

Boosters and ‘waning immunity’

As well as the positive data showing the effect of boosters on preventing transmission, Professor Karina Butler of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) said that people should be aware vaccines remain powerful in preventing hospitalisation even if their ability to prevent infection is reduced. 

“I think it’s very important to look at what we mean by protection waning,” she said.

Because when we’re talking about protection waiting after five or six months predominantly that’s against infection, not necessarily against severe disease or hospitalisation. The waning that we’ve seen, which we are seeing in terms of the infections, is not translating into severe disease.

Antigen testing in schools

On the planned use of antigen testing in schools in Ireland, Holohan said that guidance is being worked on to inform schools about how this will take place but he said there will not be “widespread” testing in schools.

Instead, he said it is envisaged the measure will be deployed when required for schools that were dealing with certain numbers of cases.

He compared it to the new approach whereby close contacts of a confirmed case are sent antigen tests, similarly close conducts in a school environment might receive an antigen test in the same way: 

The ECDC guidance is about in certain epidemiological situations. So in other words, if there’s a concern at a particular point in time about transmission in a particular school environment, we want to say what might those criteria be? In that particular setting, individuals might be identified as a close contact and then we’ll be tested in much the same way as we provided testing for close contacts in the household environment. So that’s really all we’re doing. 

Glynn added: 

Ultimately, yes, there will be a limited role for antigen testing. But the key message in all of that is that parents in particular should not be using antigen testing as a green light test if their children have symptoms, and we have evidence that that is happening in cases across the country. We have children going into schools who’ve been antigen tested, the antigen test says they don’t have Covid and unfortunately they’re sitting in the school environment with Covid. 

Reintroducing restrictions ‘not expected’ 

In calling for people across the country to reduce their social contacts by half, Holohan acknowledged that “the straight answer is no”, NPHET  has to date not seen the reduction in contacts they have previously advised. 

Asked if this continued to be the case would NPHET consider advising the government that new restrictions are required, he said that there was “no expectation” of this at the moment. 

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“Restrictions if we think they’re needed will always be something that we give contemplation to if we think they have a role to play in whatever form,” he said. 

The word ‘restrictions ‘is a broad word, if by that you mean the closure of economic and social activities, the closure of certain sectors or segments of society. Nobody is ruling out things like that anywhere but at the same time no one has an expectation that we’re going to go back into that kind of environment.

Vaccines passes for gyms and hairdressers

Despite saying that new restrictions are not on the table, Holohan said that he would favour Covid certs being a requirement for entry to environments such as gyms and hairdressers.

At present the certs are required for entry in hospitality such as pubs and restaurants, and asked about gyms and hairdressers he said: 

There’s nothing to stop organisations as part of a responsible set of measures requiring the pass as part of their activities, whatever they may be, to protect their customers or staff or members or whatever. 

“Yes, of course we would be in favour, the more we can see assurance around measures in place in different settings the better.”

NPHET is going nowhere yet

It was reported in August that NPHET was set to be disbanded in October but this did not prove to be the case.

Holohan said today that the pandemic is not over and that he and his colleagues will continue to work as required.

“I don’t mean this to sound like a flippant answer, but there was some speculation at the same time period that we were going to see the demise of the virus, that unfortunately hasn’t proven to be the case,” he said.

Unfortunately the virus and the pandemic hasn’t finished and hasn’t brought us to a point where we can step away from having those emergency related measures in place and that’s why it continues in place. 

“When we get to a point in relation to this particular pandemic that we think that those risks have changed and this becomes more and more a part of something that we deal with, then we look at all of the governance arrangements.” 

- With reporting by Zuzia Whelan

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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