‘Vaccine effect’ behind 80% drop in nursing home cases, says HSE official

Impact of vaccine rollout beginning to ‘kick in’ but Henry warns level of virus infection still too high

HSE chief executive has confirmed that, as of February 25th, hospital admissions relating to Covid-19 are down 13 per cent on the previous week. Video: RTÉ

 

The number of coronavirus cases reported from nursing homes has fallen by more than 80 per cent in a single week which the Health Service Executive (HSE) says must be attributable to the rollout of vaccines.

In the week leading up to February 14th there were 482 lab-reported cases from nursing homes, in the following week up to February 21st there were 91, a fall of 82 per cent.

HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said the fall could not be attributed to a general decrease in community transmission. He said the “vaccine effect” was already apparent in nursing home settings and vindicated the decision by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) to prioritise those living in nursing home settings.

“It’s a signal that we are heading in the right direction. It’s beginning to kick in,” he said.

“The collapse is very welcome. We have to speak dispassionately about this, but it must be attributable to the vaccine.

“Vaccinations began in long-term care facilities in January. Up to Monday February 22nd, 58,414 people in long-term residential care centres were fully vaccinated. A further 3,600 people will be vaccinated next week completing the vaccination programme for nursing home residents.”

He said allowing visitors into nursing homes “will be the first thing on the agenda” when the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) meets to discuss nursing homes. He cautioned against opening up nursing homes immediately until everybody is vaccinated, but there will be a dividend from the vaccination programme.

“This has been discussed at Nphet and I expect in the next couple of weeks we will be discussing the benefits of vaccination and how it can translate through to some dividend for the residents there in terms of visits.

“We have to be mindful we are coming out of a surge in January which saw more than 1,000 deaths, a third of which happened in the residential care settings so people would not forgive us if we rushed into this. I expect some change in visiting policy as this data comes through.”

Dr Henry said the Irish experience mirrored that of Scotland, where vaccinations in people over 80 had led to an 81 per cent reduction in hospitalisation risk in the fourth week when the results for both vaccines were combined.

Earlier, HSE chief executive Paul Reid said Covid-19 cases could go up to an “explosive level” again as the baseline level of infection remained too high.

Mr Reid said the reduction in many of the key indicators relating to the spread of the virus was slowing down.

The number of close contacts testing positive is currently at 27 per cent and 35 per cent within households.

“We are seeing higher levels of movement across society. That gives us a cause for concern,” he said.

Mr Reid said there was evidence that people were meeting up for Premier League games and the Super Bowl and contact tracing had confirmed that fact.

“Increasingly we are seeing people mixing between homes and apartments. We are seeing that increasingly again,” he said.

“It may not always be house parties, but we know there is a lot more mixing going on. It’s not just young people. We are seeing people moving between homes.”

Incidence rate

Despite these concerns, the 14-day incidence rate in Ireland, which was the highest in Europe in January, has now dropped to 20th in Europe and stands at 241 per 100,000 people. At its peak on January 17th, it was 1,492 people per 100,000.

There were 593 people in hospital and 125 in intensive care units as of Thursday morning. This represents a 13 per cent decrease for both admissions to hospitals and ICU units.

Mr Reid said the Government announcement that restrictions would remain in place until April made it very difficult for the public, but healthcare staff were “absolutely exhausted”. However, the vaccination programme has given them the “extra fuel” they need to continue.

He acknowledged some GP practices had not been receiving vaccines as requested and there had been an uneven distribution of vaccines.

In the week between February 15th and 21st, 116 GP practices administered 14,640 doses to the over-85s, with the Helix hub in Dublin administering almost 1,000 doses. This week about 40,000 doses have been delivered to more than 450 practices catering for an additional 900 GPs.

Cork Technical University and Merlin Park University Hospital, Galway, will run vaccine hubs over the weekend of February 27th and 28th. Next week will see 44,000 doses being delivered across 500 practices catering for more than 1,000 GPs.

Mr Reid said a GP order support team has been put in place to assist in placing orders. GPs will be able to send their orders to a dedicated email address. Up to February 22nd, 359,559 vaccinations were administered, with 145,557 administered to residents of long-term residential care facilities, 198,037 to frontline healthcare workers and 15,864 to those over the age of 85.

Almost 80,000 vaccines were administered last week, a further 80,000 this week while next week it is anticipated 92,000 vaccines will be administered.

Outbreaks

Meanwhile, the number of Covid-19 infections linked to outbreaks of the disease in acute hospitals has continued to fall, according to the latest weekly figures on clusters.

There were just four new outbreaks of the disease in hospitals reported in the week up to February 4th – a third of the number recorded the previous week – while cases linked to those outbreaks fell to fewer than five, down from 12 a week earlier and 116 in early January.

The weekly data published by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre shows that the number of open Covid-19 hospital outbreaks has fallen to 115 from 126 two weeks earlier.

Two of the four new outbreaks occurred in two separate wards in one hospital, while two additional outbreaks occurred in two separate acute hospitals.

Hospital infections among healthcare workers have fallen in recent weeks as immunity from the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to hospital staff since late December appears to have taken effect.

The number of infections among healthcare workers has fallen dramatically since mid-January.

The number of outbreaks reported in nursing homes rose by two, to seven outbreaks during the week, though the figure is down significantly from the 47 new outbreaks in early January.

The number of open outbreaks in nursing homes has fallen by three, to 176.

The number of deaths linked to those nursing homes since the wave began in late November stood at 776, up from 709 reported a week earlier.