HSE plans to start training 250 new Covid-19 contact tracers this week

Contract tracing centres ‘desperately need’ permanent staff to strengthen operation

A staff member at work at the contact tracing centre in Galway. File photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

A staff member at work at the contact tracing centre in Galway. File photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

The HSE is planning to have half of the 500 new staff planned for its permanent Covid-19 contact tracing operation in training by the end of this week.

Kilian McGrane, the HSE’s lead in charge of contact tracing, said that the health service is aiming to have all 500 staff for the new operation recruited in the next couple of weeks.

The HSE has been relying on staff redeployed from other areas of the health service and public sector, volunteers and other State personnel to trace contacts of Covid-19 cases.

“We desperately need to get the additional bodies. We can’t get those 250 people who are coming through on quickly enough because we need additional resilience,” said Mr McGrane.

He said the past six months has been “a fairly exhausting time” for almost 300 contact tracers who are calling newly infected people and identifying others they have been in contact with.

“In March and April, we were able to rotate people better than we are now so we are asking a lot of people at the moment and it will affect their productivity, so as we can get more bodies in, stretch the day out even longer, we can rotate people to have downtime to have them refreshed,” he said.

The HSE has received 1,100 applications for the permanent contact tracing roles and the first 250 people have come through the first round of interviews to be ready for training this week.

Contracts have been offered to existing contact tracers wishing to stay on in the roles.

There are currently eight contact tracing centres in operation including three Army units totalling about 90 people, Revenue Commissioners staff in Limerick and three HSE units in Galway, Cork and Kells, and a contact tracing centre in UCD’s Carysfort campus.

Permanent centres

The HSE plans to create five permanent contact tracing centres operating 12 hours a day, seven days a week with about 130 to 140 people contact tracing at any one time across the centres.

“It is really important we have employees available to us as opposed to having people who are on loan or volunteers who may or may not be available at the time we need them,” said Mr McGrane.

At the start of the pandemic in March, the HSE had only 60 specialists involved in contact tracing work for infectious diseases and needed to upscale quickly in response to the virus.

About 2,000 people were trained in contact tracing from March with a core staff of about 600 people carrying out the work across nine contact tracing centres in universities across the country.

The operation was reduced to just one contact tracing centre, in Galway, in June and July as the number of new coronavirus cases declined significantly.

A sudden surge in infections in August – a four-fold increase to about 160 cases over the August Bank Holiday weekend – forced the HSE to scale up operations in a matter of days with the opening of the UCD tracing centre. More contact tracers were recruited as cases increased.