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'We know we need to get better': NPHET says testing result delays due to lack of automation

“Anyone who’s ever tried to get a PC to talk to a Mac…these things take time,” said NPHET member Dr Cillian de Gascun.

Dr Cillian de Gascun at this evening's Covid-19 briefing at the Department of Health.
Dr Cillian de Gascun at this evening's Covid-19 briefing at the Department of Health.
Image: LEAH FARRELL; RollingNews.ie

MANUAL ERRORS AND a lack of integration of computer systems are contributing to delays in people receiving their Covid-19 test results in Ireland, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) said this evening.

The median wait time between a swab being taken and contact tracing in a positive test result commencing is currently five days.

Contact tracing involves contacting anyone who met a Covid-positive patient – once their result is confirmed – and ensuring they self-isolate in order the limit the spread of the virus.

This should begin as soon as possible after a confirmed diagnosis, with five days being generally accepted as being too long a period.

Contributing to the delays are human errors of data collection and transcription, public health and hospital IT systems which cannot interact effectively, a lack of standardisation across departments involved in contact tracing and individual circumstances creating more complex cases.

Health officials say the median time should be down to four days by the end of this week yet questions remain over what is causing the delay between a test being carried out and a result being confirmed, either negatively or positively.

More importantly, why are some people waiting longer than five days for contact tracing to begin?

Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory at UCD said last week he was to review delays in people receiving Covid-19 test results. De Gascun said this evening that there is a combination of issues causing delays at present. 

De Gascun said there is “no single, fundamental issue” at any one point in test-turnaround but that manual steps in the testing process have resulted in errors and delays.

“Unfortunately errors will happen in that situation and the HSE is working very hard to automate those steps,” he told TheJournal.ie

De Gascun added that errors in transcription and data collection (including gathering contact details for patients and GPs) have contributed to the delay in test results being finalised and communicated to people. 

Health Officials confirmed this evening that 44,047 tests were carried over the past week and of these, 1,466 were positive, giving a positive rate of 3.3%. 

TheJournal.ie has been made aware of a number of people who were tested but who were left waiting at least a week for their results. In one case, a nursing home employee said she and her colleagues all experienced the same delay – they were later all given negative results.

“Ultimately we’re in a situation where we’re testing in the region of 50,000 to 60,000 tests per week in a system that was put in place six weeks ago,” De Gascun said this evening. 

“It’s really important to highlight that to people,” he said, adding that health officials and hospital staff don’t all operate on the same computer system which has further delayed test results being confirmed. 

“[It's] making sure we can get all these systems to talk to each other and anyone who’s ever tried to get a PC to talk to a Mac…these things take time,” said de Gascun, adding that there was also a “human element” to testing delays. 

“We know we need to get better. But it’s a huge improvement on where we were. We want to get the turnaround time down,” he said. 

Once the system is fully automated, de Gascun said, patients will be able to be informed of their test result quicker. 

Asked why it still took a median of five days between a swab being taken and contact tracing commencing in a Covid-19 positive case, Dr Colm Henry, HSE Clinical Lead, said that, as the number of Covid-19 cases drops, complexity of individual cases has increased when it comes to contact tracing. 

This, said Henry, could include healthcare workers, patients in ICU, patients for whom English is not their first language or someone who has passed away. 

“These are more complicated complex contact tracing exercises,” said Henry, adding that in the majority of cases contact tracing begins on the same day as a result is confirmed. 

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Henry said the aim now is for all public health departments within the HSE to standardise their contact tracing. 

“Frankly we should have standardised performance right across the country so that we can give assurances to people that we’re carrying out contact tracing not based on where they live but on a standardised way of performing, assuring the population we’re carrying this out as soon as possible,” said Henry. 

NPHET confirmed this evening that a further 24 people had died from Covid-19 in Ireland, bringing the total number of deaths here to 1,488, and that 107 new cases have been confirmed, bringing the total number of cases to 23,242. 

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan also confirmed this evening that Ireland’s ‘serial interval’ – the time period between when one patient becomes symptomatic and a person they have passed Covid-19 on to – is around five days. 

With reporting by Sinéad O’Carroll

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