What’s happened with Ireland’s Covid numbers, and what does it mean for a full reopening?

Nphet’s key metrics are on the rise a week before the final restrictions were due to be lifted

Intensive care: Ireland’s healthcare system can handle about 400 hospitalised Covid patients. On Friday, 413 people were in hospital with the disease. Photograph: Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty

Intensive care: Ireland’s healthcare system can handle about 400 hospitalised Covid patients. On Friday, 413 people were in hospital with the disease. Photograph: Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty

 

What’s happened with the Covid numbers?

Over the past week or so there has been a significant increase in positive coronavirus-disease tests and some other key metrics that the National Public Health Emergency Team monitors.

These include the overall demand for testing and the prevalence of the disease in different age groups. All of these are performing badly, with the disease level rising across the country and in every age group.

This is particularly bad news, as it suggests that, rather than there being one single cause, such as an outbreak or a weakness associated with relaxing a single measure, the disease is on the march again.

What about waning immunity from vaccines?

This could be playing a role – and politicians are anxious about the booster programme, wanting it to be rolled out as soon and as widely as possible, to push back against Covid-19’s seeming resurgence.

But there’s also plenty to suggest that waning immunity is not the sole cause. For example, immunity would now be weakened in the people who got the shot first: healthcare workers, the over-80s and those in care homes.

That the disease is advancing more widely than that suggests it can’t all be explained by waning immunity – and, implicitly, that it can’t all be solved by a big booster campaign alone.

How is this even happening with our high vaccination rate?

About 300,000 people in Ireland aren’t vaccinated, and 70,000 have been only partially jabbed. Covid will make some of these unvaccinated people very sick, making them need hospitalisation and even admission to intensive care. Some will die. 

There is also an effect on the vaccinated population. The number of unvaccinated people, coupled with the fact that no vaccine is 100 per cent effective, and compounded by the extra transmissibility of the Delta variant, means there is a large “force of infection”.

But case numbers don’t matter any more, I thought

They do and they don’t. The relationship between case numbers and hospital admissions has been substantially weakened. But it has not been broken.

Public-health restrictions have, in essence, always been about protecting the hospital system. At the moment hospitals are trying to manage a Covid surge, tackle backlogs, do normal scheduled care, handle busier emergency departments and deal with winter illnesses.

A key figure to bear in mind is 400. This is roughly the number of hospitalised Covid patients the healthcare system can handle before it has to start thinking about cancelling other things. On Friday, 413 people were in hospital with Covid.

So does this mean we’re heading back into lockdown?

Not necessarily. The vaccines are still very effective, and have allowed for the safe return of many aspects of normal life. What is more likely is a slowing of the lifting of restrictions, with riskier activities, such as nightclubbing – which Minister for Culture Catherine Martin said just a few days ago she expected to reopen as planned on October 22nd – perhaps still being ruled out; distancing and masking obligations could also be retained, along with need to show a Covid cert to get into bars and restaurants, for example.

The Government will decide on Tuesday how many of the remaining restrictions the country can afford to remove.

The lifting of such public-health measures has been delayed several times this year already, making the return to normality seem torturously slow, but the trend has nevertheless been towards reopening. Nobody can guarantee we’ll get through winter without some restrictions being reintroduced, but a full-scale lockdown would be used only as a last resort.

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