Covid-19: Contact tracing calls reach highest level since start of pandemic

Rise comes despite HSE move to reduce number of calls made to positive cases

Since last March, almost 800,000 contact-tracing calls have been made. Photograph: Alan Betson

More than 173,000 Covid-19 contact-tracing calls have been made to date in January, making it the busiest month on record for calls since the pandemic began.

The increase outlined in Health Service Executive figures up to January 21st reflects the surge in cases of the virus here in recent weeks. Contact-tracing calls have already jumped by 25 per cent this month, compared with December, when a total of 138,000 calls were made.

The rise comes despite a decision by the HSE in late December to reduce the number of contact-tracing calls made to Covid-19-positive patients from a total of three to one call.

“These temporary changes have increased our capacity and mitigated the risk of the contact-tracing service being overwhelmed during a period of unprecedented demand,” a HSE spokeswoman said.


When cases are at or below 1,500 per day the HSE will consider resuming its full contact-tracing service, the spokeswoman added.

“Our capacity is set at 1,500 positive cases per day for a full contact-tracing service and close-contact testing. When we get cases to consistently at or below our capacity level [for a full tracing service] we will look to resume close-contact testing.”

Change in tone

Meanwhile, contact-tracing staff have reported a positive change in tone from calls with Covid-19-positive patients in recent weeks.

Previously, contact-tracing staff reported “difficult calls” when informing people of their positive test result and calling close contacts.

“At the moment, the tone has changed and we are finding people are very appreciative of the call. People have become very engaged with the tracers,” said the HSE spokeswoman.

“However, we find that sometimes asymptomatic patients find it difficult to understand the public-health advice to self-isolate to stop the spread of the disease. Our contact tracers work hard to ensure that these individuals understand that even though they have no symptoms they may still be infectious and that they must self-isolate to protect other people.”

An online self-referral test-appointment system for close contacts has been developed but is not yet in use as close contacts are not being offered Covid-19 testing unless they become symptomatic.

Since the pandemic began in earnest last March, almost 800,000 contact-tracing calls have been made. The national seven-day average length of time from test appointment to test result is currently 1.1 days.

HSE data shows that fewer redeployed HSE staff are working in contact tracing now compared with the first lockdown.

Of the 867 HSE staff in contact tracing currently, 811 have been hired and retained as part of the dedicated workforce to support the contact-tracing function. The remaining 56 staff have been deployed from the HSE and other public service roles.

About 1.3 million people are using the Covid app tracker and more than 21,000 have been sent a close-contact alert through the app.

According to the HSE, this figure understates the actual number of alerts, as some people do not enter a phone number or enable metrics. The actual number is likely to be up to 27 per cent higher, adding a potential 5,777 more close-contact alerts.