The Government could keep the hospitals safer this winter by giving healthcare workers a booster Covid-19 vaccine but it is not required from a scientific basis, a leading virologist has said.
Dr Cillian De Gascun, a member of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac), said vaccines had adequately protected health workers from illness but the Government could decide to boost immunity to avoid the hospital system coming under further pressure during the winter.
He noted that health workers were mostly young and still had effective protection from the vaccine but he pointed to recent scientific evidence showing declining vaccine effectiveness after six months and that health workers had been vaccinated in the early part of the year.
“The evidence isn’t there scientifically to justify boosting what is otherwise a fairly young healthy cohort – frontline healthcare workers,” said Dr De Gascun.
“But, as a policy decision, if you know that vaccine effectiveness is falling off, I don’t think it would be unreasonable for the HSE or the Government or the Department [of Health] to decide that actually we can’t have a risk of the healthcare system coming under massive pressure.”
Hospital outbreaks where patients were getting infected by staff or staff are being forced out of work could put significant pressure on the hospital system over winter.
“You could make a justifiable policy-based decision that in order to maintain or protect the healthcare system over the course of the winter that it would be prudent to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers,” he said.
The director of UCD’s National Virus Reference Laboratory, a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team, stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of Niac, which is still considering whether to extend boosters to health staff.
The HSE has been providing third booster jabs to people aged over 80 in the community and individuals aged 65 and over in care homes and other long-term residential care facilities.
It is also extending the booster programme to 800,000 people aged between 60 and 80 and people who have compromised immune systems.
Niac is coming under pressure to extend the rollout to health workers as HSE chief executive Paul Reid warned that the number of health workers out sick could soon rise to 2,000.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has written to the State's chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and the chair of Niac calling on boosters to be given to frontline health workers.
The representative group pointed to the increase in Covid-19 infections among healthcare workers with nurses and midwives the most infected, accounting for more than 26 per cent of all health worker infections. A total of 371 nurses and midwives have been infected in the past month.
Meanwhile, the representative group for the private nursing home operators says providing booster vaccinations for nursing home staff was “beyond critical” and must be planned as soon as possible.
“We are seeing high numbers again,” said Tadhg Daly, chief executive of Nursing Homes Ireland.
“There are outbreaks in hospitals, outbreaks in nursing homes. Hopefully, the decision will be made as soon as possible, in the next 24 hours, and once the decision is made, we then need a programme.”
There were 1,725 new cases of Covid-19 reported in the State on Sunday with 473 people in hospital with the virus, including 97 in intensive care units – an increase of 23 in a week.
Dr De Gascun said that, as cases increasing across all ages, the focus was on trying to get younger people vaccinated to the same high levels as in older ages and to administer third doses to older people as quickly as possible given that they were at greatest risk of hospitalisation.
“The force of infection in the community is so high that it is pushing into the vaccinated population as well,” he said.