HSE says Covid-19 testing is ‘reaching capacity’ after surge in demand

Reid defends decision to postpone meat plant tests due to surge in symptomatic testing

The HSE has defended its decision to suspend serial testing in meat plants to meet the surge in referrals for Covid-19 tests from GPs for people showing symptoms in the community.

Paul Reid, chief executive of the HSE, said that it was the "right decision" to redeploy resources from serial, asymptomatic testing in food processing plants because if the trend of community testing referrals continued, the system would be almost at its weekly capacity of 100,000 tests.

Speaking at the HSE’s weekly Covid-19 briefing, he said the number of GP referrals for testing this week - a large proportion of which was for children returning to school and people in north Dublin - created a “significant challenge on the daily lab testing because we are reaching capacity.”

Mr Reid said that the HSE had to “triage” testing and prioritise the referral of people who were showing Covid-19 symptoms and must take “the right daily agile decisions.“

“We have the 100,000 capacity. We have to address what comes at us on a daily basis and we have to take public health guidance and the prioritisation of resources,” said Mr Reid.

Asked if the weekly capacity of 100,000 tests, which equates to roughly 14,200 a day, needed to be increased, he said: “If capacity needs to be increased, we will have to seek that.”

The HSE received 13,000 referrals for tests on Monday and a further 8,000 on Tuesday, forcing the health service to postpone scheduled serial testing on asymptomatic cases in meat plants and food processing companies - a high-risk area that led to local lockdowns last month - to next week.

“Both of these [days ]are significant increases on a normal day’s referral for community testing, which has generally been 4,000 to 5,000,” Mr Reid told reporters at the briefing in UCD in Dublin.

The 21,000 referrals for community testing in a two-day period compares with 28,000 community test referrals for the whole of last week and 25,000 the week before. This amounted to an increase of 16.5 per cent in community testing needs in the week, he said.

Mr Reid said that on some days, demand for lab testing had reached in excess of 14,000, which is close to the State’s daily capacity for Covid-19 testing.

Niamh O’Beirne, the HSE’s lead on testing and contact tracing, said that there are more than 12,000 appointments scheduled for today for symptomatic people looking for Covid-19 tests.

“That makes our decision the right thing to have done to make sure we have the capacity to do those tests in our community because on top of that 12,000, we will have at least 3,000 in the acute [hospital] system, so already you are hitting 15,000,” Ms O’Beirne said.

To cope with the increased number of referrals for testing in the community, the HSE has opened three additional "pop-up" swabbing centres: in Limerick, Tallaght and Carlow-Kilkenny.

It is adding more staff to increase vehicle lanes at testing centres in Swords and at Citywest in Dublin and was deploying more Defence Forces staff at the test centre at the Aviva stadium.

Almost 57,000 swabs have been taken in serial testing of nursing homes showing a 0.2 per cent positivity rate and 12,800 swabs in meat plants, which showed a 0.27 per cent positivity rate.

The positivity rate on tests overall has risen to more than 1 per cent over the past six weeks.

Mr Reid said that the median end-to-end turnaround time from referral for a test to the contacts of an infected person being traced was 2.1 days and the median testing turnaround was 27 hours.

Limerick and Dublin

The HSE's chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said that the 14-day incidence rate of infections was 38 per 100,000 people for the country but higher in Dublin, at 71 and Limerick, at 60.

The National Public Health Emergency Team would when it meets today be “mindful” in considering the options for public health measures in response to higher infection rates in the two counties in light of the impact that lockdowns have on children and older people, he said.

“Nobody wants to go back to a full-scale lockdown,” he said, though he noted the concern of local resurgences of the disease on groups who are more vulnerable to ending up in hospital.

“NPHET will be considering how we can tighten up on extinguishing the virus within households by reducing the opportunity the virus has to propagate to jump from one household to another,” he told the briefing.

Dr Henry said that there had been a “small but steady increase” in the numbers of people aged over 75 - the age group most at risk from Covid-19 - who have been contracting the virus recently.

The HSE said that the number of people hospitalised with the coronavirus disease among 888 cases notified between August 25th and September 7th was 59, or 3.1 per cent.

Of the 59 people hospitalised with the disease in the two weeks to September 7th, 31 were aged 65 and over, 16 are under the age of 35 and 12 were aged between 35 and 65.

Mr Reid said the average daily number of new Covid-19 cases over the past seven days has been 151, up from 120 in a week.

The number of confirmed cases in hospitals has been trending upwards, standing at 50 now, up from 40 last week.

The number of cases in intensive care units remain stable at six.

Mr Reid said that the HSE has a seen a “concerning trend” of people presenting to the health services with anxiety and mental issues during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent