Ministers may press to reduce the isolation period for cases and close contacts of the highly transmissible but “milder” Omicron variant of Covid-19, as a daily record of 16,428 new coronavirus infections was confirmed in the State on Wednesday night.
A number of senior Ministers are of the view that the State should follow the lead of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US on isolation times. This week the CDC reduced the number of days of self-isolation for positive Covid-19 cases from 10 days to five, as long as they are asymptomatic. It also reduced the quarantine period for close contacts.
The CDC based the changes on research which suggests Omicron is milder but capable of resulting in far more infections. That could lead to widespread staff shortages across the whole of society.
One Minister told The Irish Times on Wednesday night: “A review of the isolation period will be something on the agenda of Cabinet very early in the new year.
“Omicron is highly transmissible. If numbers continue to rise at the rate they are at now, the sheer numbers of people in isolation will have a huge impact on jobs and the economy.
“It looks like it is milder. The CDC has made amendments to cut [isolation] to five days. We will have to look at it.”
The number of daily new cases announced by the Department of Health on Wednesday night is a record for Ireland since the pandemic began. A further 22 coronavirus-related deaths were also notified in the State in the past week.
Some 568 patients were in hospital with Covid-19, marking the fourth consecutive daily rise in this figure since Christmas Day and the highest level since late November. However, the number in ICU has remained stable at 93.
The State's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, said: "Given the very high levels of transmission of this new variant nationwide, every individual should consider themselves potentially infectious, and strictly adhere to the public health measures."
The positivity rate of Covid-19 PCR tests was 34.9 per cent over the last seven days.
Public health officials are also considering changes to the testing system, which has been put under strain in recent days.
The requirement for every case to be confirmed through a PCR test is increasingly seen as wasteful given the long waits involved in this. Despite being tripled in recent weeks, testing capacity in this regard is still unable to meet demand.
One option under examination is to make greater use of antigen testing to confirm cases in the general population, while prioritising PCR testing for at-risk groups such as older people.
Any decision to change rules in relation to testing is unlikely to be made before next week, according to an informed source.
The huge demand for tests has also put IT systems under pressure. The HSE said the self-referral feature on its online portal went down for a time on Wednesday morning but service was restored later in the day.
Dr Denis McCauley, chair of the GP committee of the Irish Medical Organisation, said the Healthlink IT system used by doctors to refer patients for Covid-19 tests was"functioning but under great strain due to the workload".
Separately, Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was too early to be optimistic about Omicron despite early indications that it leads to a milder version of Covid-19.
Even if there is confirmation that it is milder, the “sheer number of cases and the force of infection” is likely to end in more hospitalisations and deaths, he said at the WHO’s last news conference of the year.