The Master of the Rotunda maternity hospital has said 60 per cent of patients and partners “walking around the Rotunda hospital” are not vaccinated, meaning Covid-19 restrictions on attending partners cannot be lifted.
Prof Fergal Malone said the hospital carried out surveys of the vaccination status of patients and their partners every week. This week only 39 per cent of expectant mothers were vaccinated and just 41 per cent of their partners were fully vaccinated.
“It’s not surprising that there’s some vaccine hesitancy – but what that means is 60 per cent of patients and their partners walking around the Rotunda hospital today are not vaccinated and are therefore vulnerable to Covid infection – more likely to transmit.
"If we can get that vaccination number up – we will see it being safe to relax all restrictions. I would encourage every single pregnant woman, please get vaccinated," he told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland.
The National Immunisation Advisory Committee advises that pregnant women should be given an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine between 14 and 36 weeks’ gestation following a discussion about risks with their care giver.
Meanwhile, Dr Peter Boylan, former master of Holles Street National Maternity Hospital, said staff in the Rotunda were “clearly doing their best”.
He told Newstalk Breakfast: “I think it probably reflects partly, maybe, the population that the Rotunda serves.
“There clearly is a low vaccination uptake among people attending the Rotunda, and that does obviously create particular difficulties for them.
“They also note in their statement that they’ve had a 20 per cent increase in births over the past year, and will have over 9,000 births this year.
“So you can kind of understand the difficulties that they have through basic overcrowding.”
He said the Rotunda was the oldest maternity hospital in the world, “and trying to run a modern maternity hospital in those circumstances with the increased numbers of births is really quite a challenge”.
Dr Boylan said the distress caused to couples when a partner was not allowed to attend in particular circumstances was absolutely understandable.
However, he concluded: “I think they’re clearly doing their best, but they do have a problem with the infrastructure in the Rotunda, and with the low vaccination rates among people attending.”
Amid criticism of restrictions on partners attending maternity hospitals, fresh HSE guidance was issued to maternity hospitals last week saying partners can accompany pregnant women for 12-week scans and for Caesarean sections.
It said the aim of the new guidance was to try to return to pre-pandemic visiting rights and that partners who were incorrectly denied entry to hospitals recently had received apologies.
Health officials have said maternity hospitals would have to provide explanations for situations where guidance on visits for partners was not followed.
The Rotunda is currently allowing partners to attend early pregnancy scanning up to 12 weeks and anomaly scans, but said it cannot accommodate unrestricted visiting at other times.
Prof Malone defended the Rotunda hospital’s record on visiting hours and said there were new pathways for early pregnancy units scans, also for any exceptional news or complex situations, “we always make exceptions. That continues to happen.”
However, he pointed out that parts of the hospital date back to 1757 and there is no ventilation or air conditioning in the old building. Included in that section are the main waiting rooms for the emergency department and ultrasound department.
“There just isn’t physically the space to put large numbers of adults sitting together in a confined space. The ultrasound waiting room has just 12 seats in it. If eight or nine mothers are sitting there, suddenly there are 16 or 18 adults because they have a partner with them in a small room that is not ventilated and not capable of being ventilated. That is a very serious risk. It’s the same with the emergency department waiting room area – there are only 10 seats.”
Each of the hospital’s eight delivery suites are private and once a patient is admitted to the delivery room the patient’s partner will be with them “for every minute of that journey,” added Prof Malone.
If it was not certain that a patient was in full labour, they could be in a room with six others, that was in the old building with no ventilation. “So if you have six mothers in a single room and then suddenly 12 adults – if not vaccinated, that is a very serious risk,” he warned.