Covid-19: Backlog forces HSE to skip calls to thousands of close contacts

Government fears health officials will seek another lockdown after Christmas

The HSE has said that it will send a text message on Wednesday to between 2,000 and 2,500 people, who have already been informed by text of their infection, asking them to tell their own close contacts to contact their GPs immediately to seek a  test. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The HSE has said that it will send a text message on Wednesday to between 2,000 and 2,500 people, who have already been informed by text of their infection, asking them to tell their own close contacts to contact their GPs immediately to seek a test. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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Thousands of close contacts of positive Covid-19 cases from over a three day period will not be contacted by the HSE because the contact tracing system was overwhelmed by cases last weekend.

The HSE has said that it will send a text message on Wednesday to between 2,000 and 2,500 people, who have already been informed by text of their infection, asking them to tell their own close contacts to contact their GPs immediately to seek a Covid-19 test.

Normally contact tracers call newly-infected people to ask for their close contacts and then call those close contacts to arrange for them to be tested to stem transmission of the disease.

However, the HSE’s contact tracers faced an unprecedented number of confirmed cases last weekend, resulting in a backlog of cases over three days, from Friday to Sunday.

It was decided not to contact the infected people for their close contacts over fears this would lead to a delay of days in contact tracing and to concentrate instead on tracing the contacts of Monday’s cases to avoid a backlog given the continuing high of cases being reported daily.

Vulnerable people aged over 70 and schoolchildren among the confirmed Covid-19 cases over the three days are, however, being called and their close contacts sought and contacted.

‘Once-off measure’

Covid-19 cases have, on average, five close contacts, but the HSE said the removal of school cases, who have more contacts on average, means potentially 8,000 close contacts could be affected.

“In response to the high numbers of people testing positive for Covid-19 over the past weekend, and in a continuing effort to maintain effective turnaround times for contact tracing, the HSE is asking a limited number of people to alert their own close contacts of their positive result as a once-off measure,” said Niamh O’Beirne, the HSE manager in charge of testing and tracing.

“This step is being taken to ensure that each person receives information as quickly as possible, allowing them to be aware of their status as a close contact and to take action to care for themselves, and protect others from infection.”

The HSE will ask the infected person to forward the text message to their close contacts advising them to restrict their movements and to contact their GP immediately to arrange a test.

The “one-off temporary measure” was being implemented in consultation with GPs “to ensure those affected are tested as quickly as possible,” said Ms O’Beirne.

A further 13 deaths of people with Covid-19 were reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team, the highest daily number since late May. And a further 1,269 confirmed cases of the disease were reported.

Further lockdowns

Meanwhile, the Government fears public health officials will seek another lockdown in January after restrictions are eased for a few weeks over Christmas, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions.

National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) members suggested infections would rise during December once restrictions were eased, making a return to Level 5 necessary in the new year. This was one scenario discussed at Saturday’s meeting between the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, ministers and Nphet officials.

The suggestion is at odds with the exit strategy agreed within Government, which envisages the lifting of Level 5 measures if the reproduction number of Covid-19 drops below 1 and cases are falling “consistently”.

Ministers hope it may be possible to move down to Level 4 restrictions earlier than planned in the six-week lockdown, due to begin at midnight on Wednesday.

A regional or local approach may also be taken, so that individual counties may be able to escape lockdown if their figures improve, one Government source said.

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