Covid isolation measures could be relaxed to ease pressure on health systems, ECDC says

European centre issues updated guidelines as Omicron wave creates staffing issues

Some Covid-19 public health measures could be relaxed to help health systems cope with extreme pressure due to staffing issues amid high infection rates, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has proposed.

The ECDC has issued updated guidelines to EU members on isolation and quarantine measures in light of the “rapid spread” of the more transmissible Omicron Covid-19 variant across the bloc.

Several arms of the State’s health apparatus had already warned that disruption caused by such measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 is intensifying in the health service, amid pressures on some services as the Omicron wave sweeps the country.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the new guidance would give the State "options" to consider.

The new guidance includes new options regarding quarantine and isolation and recommendations that can be adapted and implemented when resources are limited and when there is high pressure on healthcare systems and other functions in society.

The ECDC acknowledged that due to limited scientific evidence on the epidemiological characteristics of Omicron, the proposed options are not evidence-based and may imply an additional risk for transmission.

It said the options are based on a “pragmatic approach”, taking into account the need to uphold critical functions in society.

“Decisions to adapt quarantine and isolation guidance require consideration of the additional risk of transmission, the local epidemiological situation, the testing and contact tracing capacity and the socio-economic effects of the pandemic in the specific setting,” it said.

Overall guidance

The ECDC’s overall guidance regarding quarantine remains unchanged, but the options proposed include shorter quarantine periods for close contacts of Covid-19 cases in case of high and extreme pressure on healthcare systems and society, as well as testing with rapid antigen tests to release patients from quarantine.

The options also include removing the need for vaccinated close contacts of people infected with Covid-19 to quarantine if the health system is under extreme pressure.

In the options for isolation of Covid-19 cases, the clinical improvement now required includes a resolution of fever for 24 hours instead of for three days. The options also include testing by rapid antigen tests to release patients from isolation.

Shorter periods of isolation are also proposed in the options for isolation, which are for essential workers, in case of high and extreme pressure to healthcare and society.

“Based on the current situation and the available evidence, ECDC considers that the overall level of risk to public health associated with the further emergence and spread of the Omicron in the EU/EEA is very high,” the ECDC said.

“In the coming weeks, the spread of Omicron is expected to result in even higher overall case notification rates.”

It said the high levels of transmission may lead to high levels of absence from work, including among healthcare and other essential workers.

This, it said, is “likely to overwhelm” the testing and contact tracing capacities in many EU member states. “The sheer volume of Covid-19 cases anticipated to occur are expected to place considerable strain on healthcare systems and society,” it added.