Covid-19: Changes to close-contact testing may shorten personal restriction period

New ‘day 10’ testing of close contacts could free them earlier from restricted movements

Changes to close-contact testing means individuals who have had contact with Covid-19 cases may have their 14-day restriction period shortened if they are not showing symptoms.

On Wednesday, the HSE reintroduced twice-testing of close contacts of positive cases – on day zero and day 10 since their last exposure to the case – allowing close contacts to end their restricted movements if they receive a “not detected” result from the day 10 test and are asymptomatic.

Previously, since the resumption of the testing of close contacts on January 29th, close contacts were tested just once, on day five, but were still required to continue restricting their movements for 14 days regardless of whether the day five test produced a “not detected” result.

Hospital Report

The HSE introduced the testing changes on Wednesday after the recommendation was made by the State's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, in the latest letter to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, dated February 4th and just published by the Department of Health.


“This could shorten the period of restrictions,” said the HSE’s national lead for testing and tracing, Niamh O’Beirne.

She said if a close contact has the test on the morning of day 10, they will be released from their restricted movements if the second test comes back negative and they have no symptoms.

Dr Holohan recommended the changes after the State’s health service regulator, the Health Information and Quality Authority, updated its analysis on the impact of different testing.

The changes to the testing regime could be introduced “as soon as swabbing testing and contact tracing capacity can facilitate this development,” he said.

Dr Holohan also advised Mr Donnelly that healthcare workers designated as close contacts should move to testing at day zero and day 10, instead of day five and day 10, since their last exposure.

Double testing allows the system to catch more cases as the incubation period in a close contact can result in the first test producing a “not detected” result and the second a positive result.

The positivity on second tests has stood at roughly around 3 per cent during the pandemic.

Some 121,399 tests have been carried out over the last seven days, with a positive result being detected in 5.9 per cent of cases, according to the Government’s Covid-19 data hub.

The twice-testing regime was in operation, at day zero and day seven, prior to the testing of contact tracing being suspended in late December due to the strain on the testing system from the surge in new infections caused by increased social mixing over the Christmas period.

Ms O’Beirne said even with the resumption of close-contact testing at the end of last month, the number of referrals for testing has risen by just 1 per cent over the last seven days, reflecting a reduction in the spread of the virus as a result of the Level 5 lockdown measures.

The number of symptomatic people being referred for tests by GPs fell by 5 per cent on Monday from a week earlier. The numbers being referred by GPs fell to about 5,000 at the start of this week – down from a daily high of 26,000 on December 30th at the peak of the third wave.

There were just over 1,700 close contacts of Covid-19 confirmed cases referred for testing on Monday. This number is likely to rise with the resumption of double-testing of close contacts.

In another sign of public restrictions reducing the spread of the virus, there has been a smaller proportion of community transmission cases where the source of the infection is not known and a greater proportion of positive cases identified among close contacts, said Ms O’Beirne.

“This means that the virus is less rampantly running around the place and we don’t know where it is,” she said.

However, the dominance of the more transmissible UK variant, the B117 strain, means more close contacts of infected cases are testing positive for the virus than before, she said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times