Rising Covid-19 infections spark surge in absences among healthcare staff

Procedures cancelled as Coalition awaits advice on providing boosters for health workers

Increased Covid-19 cases have led to a surge in absences among healthcare workers and the cancellation of hundreds of planned medical procedures.

As the Government awaits key advice on providing booster vaccines to health staff, Health Service Executive statistics show that 2,700 are estimated to be off work as a result of the disease, an increase of 900 in a week.

An estimated 440 procedures have been cancelled across 22 acute hospitals in the last two weeks as pandemic-related pressures have mounted.

A HSE spokeswoman said in addition to cancelled procedures “there would be a further impact on elective procedures” as appointments would not have been scheduled at all.

Healthcare unions seeking booster doses for their members have written to the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac), which is tasked with providing advice on the provision of further vaccines, asking whether it would “take responsibility” for the risk faced by its members.

Niac will hold a crunch meeting on Monday to discuss extending the booster campaign to healthcare workers. Coalition sources expect the outcome will be an expansion of the programme.

The HSE is planning to ramp up administration using mass-vaccination centres from the week after next. Pharmacies would be expected to play a role in the expanded booster campaign, which to date has meant GPs or mobile vaccination teams administer the shots to older people and those in nursing homes.

Phil Ní Sheaghdha, general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, told Niac chairwoman Prof Karina Butler in a letter on Friday that the health service was attempting to fill rosters with a decreasing number of staff.

“When our members, nurses and midwives, are working in locations which have confirmed cases of Covid-19 and they become infected, despite being fully vaccinated, do Niac now take responsibility for this preventable risk exposure?” she wrote.

Contact tracing

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has ruled out a widespread return to contact-tracing policies that absent children from the classroom, but said there could be a role for antigen in selected situations.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) was considering wider use for antigen in schools. However, it was unclear when such advice would emerge.

The Department of Health said “mindful of the recent increase in Covid-19 incidence across the population, including amongst children” Nphet was reviewing data, international evidence and guidance on the use of antigen testing.

“The Chief Medical Officer [Tony Holohan] will continue to monitor and advise the Minister for Health as appropriate on these matters.”

Government sources indicated that the Department of Education would implement public health advice, but that there were issues around how basic contact tracing would be carried out and how the monitoring and reporting of positive antigen tests would be handled.

To prevent further spread among children over the Halloween weekend, Dr Holohan advised people to give treats to trick-or-treaters outdoors if possible.