Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and State chief medical officer Tony Holohan met senior health officials and local Donegal politicians on Saturday evening over the high coronavirus rate in the county.
The discussion centred on what further supports can be put in place to tackle elevated infection numbers in the county. Following the virtual gathering the Minister said it had been positive exchange and that the good work done to date could be further supported.
During the meeting Mr Donnelly and Dr Holohan focused on the rise in county cases with local TDs and Senators. Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh welcomed the meeting which was scheduled for 6pm.
Dr Holohan said on Friday that Donegal needed to “turn around” its high infection rates.
Incidence of the virus in the county has been almost continually above the national average since last September and stands at almost 300 cases per 100,000, compared to 127 nationally. In Milford, the incidence stands at 675 and in Letterkenny it is 600.
Gardaí in the county alerted the public of the need to plan their activities over the weekend. They said that if a driver is found in breach of the non-essential travel regulations, he/she and all adult passengers will be fined.
Fatalities and infections
The meeting in Donegal came as a further three coronavirus-related deaths and 569 confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported in the State on Saturday.
Of the cases reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), 268 were men and 290 were women, while 78 per cent were under 45 years of age. The median age was 26.
As of 8am on Saturday, there were 123 patients in hospital with Covid-19, with 41 in intensive care.
There were five additional hospitalisations in the past 24 hours.
As of Thursday, more than 1.5 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in the State. A total of 1,097,742 have received their first dose and 430,102 people have received their second dose.
Ninety more Covid-19 cases were confirmed in Northern Ireland while there were no further deaths of people who had previously tested positive.
The Health Service Executive and Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland are urging people to stick to key public health advice over the coming weeks, particularly with regard to cross-Border activity.
The joint statement from the health authorities comes amid concern over the risk of a rise in cases in Border areas as restrictions in both jurisdictions ease.
Meanwhile, a senior public health official has warned people to avoid drifting indoors when socialising outside and said regional lockdowns would be considered in areas if coronavirus rates rise rapidly.
Philip Nolan, chairman of the Nphet modelling group, appealed to the public not to "push the limits" on society reopening.
There is “always the possibility” restrictions could be reimposed in parts of the country if cases and hospitalisations spike following the lockdown exit, he said.
Speaking on RTÉ radio's Saturday with Katie Hannon, Prof Nolan appealed to the public not to "drift indoors" when out socialising.
Exit from the lengthy Level 5 lockdown is based largely on permitting outdoor activities and controlled indoor environments.
“Going to the shops, or meeting up with a group of friends for a drink outdoors, you can do that safely, or unsafely,” he said.
“Outdoors is safer but . . . don’t be getting in their face. We are going to see parts of the country where it seems more difficult to suppress the disease and we’re seeing that right now in Donegal. There is always the possibility that a regional approach may have to be taken in the future, in order to contain the disease in certain parts of the country,” he added.
Public health officials would be monitoring closely for any “early signs” of a return to exponential growth of Covid-19 cases, said Prof Nolan.
“Sustained growth in case numbers and how fast case numbers are accelerating over 10 days to two weeks, that would trigger the alarm,” he said.
The current assessment is if people stick to the “letter and spirit” of reopening guidelines, the risk remains low to medium, he added.
Prof Nolan responded to criticism from restaurateurs that they are being unfairly limited to only outdoor dining in June, given hotels are permitted to reopen indoor restaurants and bars.
Hotels would have lower density and turnover of customers than normal restaurants, he said. “Given the level of hotel occupancy the owners of the hotel should be able to operate their restaurant in a very controlled manner,” he said.
Prof Nolan added the resumption of indoor dining in hotels would “lay the groundwork” for further reopening of the rest of the restaurant sector.
‘A further wave’
This week the public health emergency team warned the Government of the risk of “significant impact of a further wave” if social contacts increase rapidly before vaccines take full effect.
The team’s warning came ahead of the Cabinet decision to approve plans for significant reopening of the economy and society over the next two months.
Easing of restrictions – such as the return of intercounty travel and non-essential retail and construction – will be closely monitored ahead of a second phase of reopening in June involving the hospitality industry.
The public health emergency team’s letter to Government warned of a “significant impact” from a further wave of infection if social mixing becomes too high ahead of “a sufficient proportion of the population being protected through vaccination”.
Modelling projections in the letter also show that increased mixing could lead to between 1,100 and 7,000 cases a day. And in a worst-case situation this could trigger 10,000 admissions to hospital. Conversely, it shows sticking to public health advice would allow vaccines to build up and avoid further surges later in the summer, even if social mixing increases later on. – Additional reporting: PA