Likely rise in Covid cases and hospitalisations as new immune-evasive variant spreads, CMO warns

Anticipated resurgence of coronavirus placing extra strain on health service struggling with record RSV wave and invasive cases of strep A

Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations are set to increase in the coming weeks due to the rise of a new variant that breaks through immune protection, the chief medical officer (CMO) has warned.

The anticipated resurgence of Covid will place extra strain on a health service already struggling with a record wave of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) as well as invasive cases of the bacterial infection strep A.

Prof Breda Smyth said 320 cases of the BQ.1 variant and its sub-lineages have been detected in Ireland through genome sequencing, and the proportion of BQ.1 cases is increasing.

Other newer variants that have been detected include eight cases of XBB, 307 cases of BF.7 and 187 cases of BA.2.75, she said in her latest weekly report on Covid, dated November 18th.

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BQ.1 appears to break through immune protection, but is not currently a cause for concern, World Health Organisation’s Special Envoy on Covid-19 Dr David Nabarro said this week.

At that time, Prof Smyth reported that the overall situation with Covid was stable, with decreasing infections and stable numbers in hospital. Only 31 per cent of hospitalised cases were there because of Covid, and only 25 per cent of ICU cases had Covid as a primary reason for admission.

However, since mid-November, both cases and hospitalisations have increased.

On Thursday, there were 359 people with Covid in hospital, the highest figure since October 8th.

According to the latest weekly report from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, the number of Covid cases confirmed by PCR test increased by 15 per cent in the week to December 3rd. Positive antigen tests were up by almost 15 per cent. There were 54 Covid outbreaks last week, an increase of eight.

Under changes being introduced by the Department of Health from Friday, GPs will no longer be able to refer patients for free Covid testing, and private patients with Covid will have to pay normal consultation fees.

Medical card patients are not affected by the change.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said the Government is very concerned about strep A. This follows the death this week of a four-year-old child in the northeast, and a five-year-old in Belfast.

Asked about a possible short of antibiotics to treat cases, Mr Varadkar said: “We haven’t been informed of any shortage of oral or IV penicillin at this stage, but we’re aware of what’s being signalled in the UK, so we’re definitely going to follow up on that”.

“We’re not at the point where we’re contemplating any Covid type measures, this is not a virus, it’s different, this a bacterial infection and the number of cases thankfully so far is relatively low,” he said.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times