The contracts of hundreds of contact tracers who track Covid-19 infections are being extended to next April, in a sign of the increasing unpredictability of the coronavirus pandemic’s trajectory.
Private recruitment business CPL, which the Health Service Executive (HSE) uses to employ contact tracers, told the Covid-19 tracing teams they will be required for another six months after an "extremely busy" six-week period of "significant and sustained increases in case numbers".
The company informed contact tracers late last week that the HSE needs to maintain its existing contact tracing capability well into 2022 so it can “deal with issues, both predicted and unforeseen” over the next three to six months. About 900 people currently work in contact tracing.
Contracts are being extended to April 30th. Staff were told they may asked to support public health teams on complex contact tracing investigations and, if contact tracing activity declines over the six months, to carry out “other suitable duties for a temporary period”.
The resurgence of Covid-19, with cases rising above 3,000 new infections a day in a fourth wave, has forced the HSE to reverse direction just six weeks after the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) was considering proposals to wind down routine contact tracing from the end of October.
‘At full stretch’
The Department of Health reported a further 3,428 Covid-19 cases on Sunday, putting the seven-day average – a measure that evens out daily fluctuations – at 3,399, up 51 per cent in a week.
The HSE said last week its test-and-trace system was operating “at full stretch” and that if cases continued to rise through the winter it would “present a challenge”.
In further measures to tackle the spread of the virus, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he expected rapid antigen testing to be used in primary schools before Christmas.
He said he would like to see “urgent and rapid sanctions” for outlets in the hospitality sector which were not checking Covid-19 vaccine certificates.
There is a growing divide emerging between the Government and public health advisers on whether to extend vaccine boosters to the wider population as a way of suppressing the virus.
A Government insider pointed to overwhelming international evidence showing the effectiveness of booster doses in countries such as Israel, both to protect people from disease due to waning immunity from the initial jabs and to prevent transmission.
Nphet has questioned whether it is appropriate to “re-medicate” the entire population with a booster dose as a substitute for basic public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus, but has left the matter open to the Government, saying it was a “very big policy decision”.
The public health team sees booster doses, currently being administered to people aged 60 and over and those with weakened immune systems, as a means to protect against severe disease, believing there is no one “magic solution” to prevent the virus spreading.
While figures in the Government acknowledge the National Immunisation Advisory Committee’s responsibilities to consider the effect of a wider booster programme, they believe there is a compelling argument for third doses for younger age groups to reduce disease and transmission.
“The trajectory seems to be boosters for younger age groups. It is almost inevitable that they will include younger age groups. It is just a question of when,” said one Government source.