Coronavirus: HSE emergency line ‘inundated’ with general queries

Health body says it may run out of testing kits for a period while new supplies awaited

The HSE may run out of testing equipment for coronavirus for the coming days following a huge increase in the number of people worried they have the disease, officials have said.

“We may run out of swabbing equipment” for carrying out tests before a consignment of 30,000 new kits arrives on Thursday, HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor conceded.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid said there had been a “huge surge” of calls over the weekend, which had “clogged up” the 999/112 emergency line.

Meanwhile, the HSE helpline, which normally gets 500 calls a days, had received 124,000 calls over the weekend.

Mr Reid urged the public not to use the emergency line.

Ms O’Connor told a media briefing on Tuesday that the emergency phone-line is being “inundated” with calls from people with general queries, when it has no role in referring patients for tests.

She urged people with concerns to look up the HSE website before picking up the phone and said the HSE helpline on the virus is merely an information service.

The referral of people for tests went online on Friday but was hit by an IT glitch that morning. Ms O’Connor said this has been addressed by Friday lunchtime.

A “huge” number of people have been referred for tests since GPs were able to do this last week, she acknowledged, and this “will take some time to work through”.

Officials declined to say what the current waiting time is, beyond saying it is “a number of days”.

Processing

HSE chief clinical officer Colm Henry said testing capability had expanded as a huge pace but there was huge demand for swabbing equipment, while the number of centres processing tests would be increased to 10 later this week.

People awaiting tests need to self-isolate while waiting, he stressed, adding that the test would not make a difference to their condition.

Dr Henry said testing someone with no symptoms was of no value and depleted valuable resources. He urged people with worries to contact their doctor.

HSE public health specialist Dr Sarah Doyle said people awaiting a test should have information ready on their contacts, while their household contacts should restrict their movements.

There have also been delays in providing processing and providing test results but these are expected to ease as the number of labs doing this work is expanded.

More than 1,200 people have been recruited to work on tracing the close contacts of people confirmed to have the disease, Mr Reid said. Normally, 60 public health staff work in contact tracing.

Some 200 of these will work on organising care and self-isolation. Another 1,000 will conduct detailed callbacks, or interviews, with confirmed cases and on following up with contacts.

Mr Reid said the aim of the HSE operational plan for to provide the highest level of care those the sickest in hospitals, but treat most people in the community.

The plan aimed to reduce the volume of people who need to go to hospital, and to massively scale up capacity in the system.

Capacity in the system has been doubled, indicated with an additional 10,000 beds available to support various levels of treatment.

Constructive discussions

Mr Reid said constructive discussions had taken place with private hospitals about using their capacity and more talks were planned in the coming days.

He said the health service was not in a “race for time” over the coming days and it was vital people complied with the key measures of social distancing and correct respiratory etiquette.

Procurement of medical equipment was proving a very difficult challenge worldwide, particularly in relation to ventilators and protective gear, he said.

An extra 300 ventilators have been procured on top of the existing 500, with 100 more a week to come, while ICU capacity, including that in the private sector, now stood at 500 beds. There are also another 1,000 high-level beds available.