The Irish Times view on coronavirus clusters: Ireland is learning lessons

There is a delicate inter-play between reopening safely and suppressing the disease

There have been clusters of Covid-19 infection in 257 nursing homes in the State. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/the Irish Times

There have been clusters of Covid-19 infection in 257 nursing homes in the State. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/the Irish Times

 

The lessons to be learned from outbreaks of Covid-19 disease in nursing homes, meat processing plants and other congregated settings such as direct provision centres will be hard and far-reaching but need to be established quickly if we are to live safely with this virus.

The number of clusters of infection in residential care facilities, including nursing homes, and, in more recent times, meat processing plants and other at-risk areas shows the difficult balance to be struck. There is a delicate inter-play between reopening safely and suppressing the reproduction rate of the disease.

Deaths in residential care facilities account for 62 per cent of more than 1,500 from Covid-19 in the State. Nursing homes account for the lion’s share of that, or 54 per cent of all fatalities. While the devastation is clear in those settings, the route that the virus travelled to get into the facilities, leaving 257 nursing homes battling Covid-19 clusters, is still being understood.

As the increase in nursing home outbreaks has slowed, focus has turned to meat plants where close proximity, labour-intensive work involving many staff on rigid butchering lines has helped spread of the virus.

There are challenges beyond the workplace as lower-paid employees, often foreign nationals, at these plants share multiple-occupancy rental accommodation, a fact that has led public health officials to find them alternative accommodation to stem outbreaks.

The nature of nursing home employment, with many relying on agency staff, some of whom also share accommodation and work in multiple locations on a shift basis, is believed to be one of the factors that has contributed to the spread of the virus to different care homes.

The complications of work and life outside of work for all these high-risk settings mean extra precautions and careful monitoring, along with regular testing, will be required over the coming months. Getting it right in these locations will help guide a safe return for others to the “new normal” that this pandemic will leave behind.

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