Officials refuse to rule out ‘Midlands lockdown’ following Covid-19 surge

Counties Kildare, Laois and Offaly account for 226 new cases in past 14 days

August 6th, 2020: Dr Ronan Glynn has asked people living in Kildare, Laois and Offaly to "double down" on basic public health behaviours following a spike in Covid-19 cases in the region. Video: RTÉ

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Public health officials have refused to rule out a “Midlands lockdown” in response to a big surge in Covid-19 cases in counties Kildare, Laois and Offaly.

People living in the three counties have been warned to “double down” on following public health advice in order to minimise their risk of being infected, and older people have been advised to limit their social networks, “stay distant” and avoid public transport if possible.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) said it would provide further “guidance” and information, once it has information on contact tracing for the latest batch of cases from the area. It has also written to local GPs to outline its concerns.

The surge in cases in the region is largely linked to outbreaks in food processing plants and, to a lesser extent, clusters in three direct provision centres.

The three counties accounted for 226 new cases in the past 14 days, or 48 per cent of the national total, with another 60 provisional cases expected to be confirmed in Friday’s official figures.

While there is little evidence of community transmission as of yet, the Midlands cases constitute a “very large reservoir” of disease and there is a “real risk” of community spread from them in the coming weeks, according to Prof Philip Nolan, chairman of the NPHET Irish epidemiological modelling advisory group.

More than 60 per cent of recent cases involve the close contacts of confirmed cases and were picked up during testing during outbreaks, officials said. The proportion of cases involving community transmission, where the cause of infection is not known, has remained constant at 20 per cent, while travel-related cases have declined.

As a result, the reproduction number – a measure of the number of people infected by a case – has risen from 1.3 last week to about 1.8 now.

‘Serious concern’

Prof Nolan said a reproduction number of almost two was a “serious concern” and posed a “real risk” of an increase in community transmission in the coming weeks.

The trend “emphasises the need for us to be extraordinarily cautious”, he told the NPHET briefing on Thursday evening.

The plants affected by outbreaks are in Tullamore, Co Offaly; Kildare town; and Timahoe, Co Kildare.* In a statement on Thursday night, a spokeswoman for O’Brien’s Fine Foods in Timahoe confirmed that 80 of its employees had tested positive for the virus and testing continues on dozens more.

Production has been shut down at the family-run Brady’s Ham plant, and management said it was “difficult to comprehend” the sudden spike given the “level of rigour and our comparatively low level of confirmed cases up to this point”.

Five Covid-19 deaths were reported by NPHET on Thursday, four of them delayed notifications. Another 69 new cases were also reported, only two of which involved community transmission.

Doubling of cases

Reporting a general worsening of the situation, Prof Nolan said the average number of new cases per day more than doubled in the past week, while the number of people hospitalised stopped declining.

Chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn warned on Thursday night that where cases lived was as important as the location of facilities where outbreaks occurred, and people across the three counties “need to be careful”. Asked whether NPHET might introduce a lockdown in the Midlands, he said nothing could be ruled out but he did not want to pre-judge the latest cases before the results of contact tracing had been properly examined.

Dr Glynn called on residents of the three counties to pay particular heed to possible symptoms of Covid-19, and to self-isolate quickly and contact their GP if these occur.

People should “double down” on their public health behaviour by adhering to 2 metres social distance, avoiding crowded spaces, washing their hands and using face-coverings where necessary.

People in the three counties who are aged over 70 or are medically vulnerable are being advised to limit the number of people they meet to a very small network, for short periods of time, and to remain physically distant.

If taking exercise outdoors, they should maintain a distance of at least 2 metres from others and wash their hands immediately once they return home, Dr Glynn recommended.

Officials said they were concerned about four “significant” outbreaks, involving more than 150 cases, in the facilities. There are also clusters in three direct provision centres in the Midlands but Dr Glynn said he was “not unduly concerned” about these as they appeared to be under control.

Many of the cases, and their contacts, have been transferred to the isolation centre at Citywest in recent days.

*This article was amended on August 7th, 2020

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