The recent rise in coronavirus infections has compelled the Health Service Executive to enlist a private company to help meet the surge in demand for tests.
Monday marked the busiest day of the pandemic to date for community testing. And the increase in positive cases in this fourth pandemic wave has put the health service and coronavirus testing teams under severe strain.
A further 3,633 cases were reported on Wednesday, with the latest figures showing 634 patients were hospitalised (an increase of 20 on Tuesday) including 119 in intensive care. More than 50,000 infections have been recorded in the last fortnight.
Reacting to the escalating infection rate, State chief medical officer Tony Holohan said cancelling social plans in the run-up to Christmas is a “responsible” decision. And he urged people to reduce social contacts.
The HSE said that more than 24,000 appointments were offered in community testing centres on Monday after it carried out some 20,000 tests a day over the last week. This is well in excess of the 15,000 daily tests that the community testing service was initially established to support.
The demand has led to delays in booking tests with no appointments for self-referral tests at any of the eight Dublin testing sites, or four in Cork, available on the HSE’s Book a Covid-19 test website on Tuesday and Wednesday. A spokeswoman said that, since Monday, private testing provider RocDoc is operating a testing centre on its behalf at Dublin Airport. This would initially provide 500 appointments a day, rising “quickly” to 1,000, she said.
She said there are plans to open similar testing centres – operated on behalf of the Health Service Executive by RocDoc – at Cork and Shannon Airports and it is expected these would be in operation over the next two weeks. Additional staff are also being recruited to work in community test centres.
The HSE is working “to put further additional external resources in place to increase our testing capacity, including potentially other private service providers”, said the spokeswoman.
There has been “a sustained extremely high demand” for tests at community testing centres. And this reflects “the high prevalence of the disease and other illnesses at this time”, she said.
The HSE’s priority, said the spokeswoman, is to allow GPs to refer patients for PCR testing where warranted and for close contacts of confirmed cases to be able to get an appointment as quickly as possible.
“Ensuring these two groups are prioritised does mean that those outside these categories may not be able to book a test until the following day.”
Labour Party health spokesman Duncan Smith called on the Government to outline a plan to clear the backlog in PCR tests. He said people were waiting several days to get one.
“This is a ridiculous situation... It’s clear that testing centres are currently under-resourced and unable to deal with the latest surge in Covid cases,” he said.
Dr Holohan said that 200,000 people who could potentially be infected in December had not yet been and transmission could be avoided if people took action now. If they did, as models predicted, become infected, it would mean 4,000 people would be hospitalised over the Christmas period.
“There is no single measure on its own that will curb this. We need to use all of the measures together and use them properly and appropriately,” he told RTÉ’s News at One.