Blitz of Covid-19 testing for Co Limerick after rate of infection nearly doubles

Interval between doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to be reduced on a phased basis

A blitz of Covid-19 testing is planned for Limerick after the rate of infection in the county nearly doubled in less than 10 days.

It is understood the 14-day incidence rate of cases per 100,000 population grew from 218 as of midnight, May 25th, to 426 as of midnight on Thursday of this week – almost three-and-a-half times the national average of 122 cases per 100,000 population.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan told a meeting of Limerick politicians and public health teams on Friday that a local lockdown is not currently envisaged.

He told the meeting the option of using measures locally is still available, albeit not currently under consideration. For now, as cases dropped to 75 in the county on Friday from the 103 diagnosed on Thursday, Co Limerick will not be locked down and will reopen in line with the rest of the country on Monday.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said: "Those options are there, but they are not being considered for Limerick or anywhere else". He said he believed infection rates would fall in Limerick.

He added, however, that the rate in the county is 2.5 times higher than the next highest area (Donegal). While it was more prevalent in Limerick city than county, it was present in multiple different areas and settings, and among those aged 45 and under.

“What’s driving a lot of concern is the increase in the rate, and the relatively wide distribution of the cases,” he said. Outbreaks that could be traced to a particular geography or social network were easier to tackle, he said, but: “This is all over the city, therefore it needs this enhanced response”.

Testing is to be increased significantly – capacity is to be doubled at the St Joseph’s Hospital site in the city, and Mr Donnelly said at least one new centre would be added in the county next week, while samples would be continually tested for variants of concern.

Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan said the meeting was told the positivity rate among those aged 35-54 was between nine and 10 per cent.

Fine Gael’s Kieran O’Donnell said Dr Holohan told the group roughly half of infections were among those aged 19-44 and 20 per cent among the 19-24 age group, many of whom are unvaccinated but less susceptible to serious disease.

Niall Collins, Fianna Fáil TD for Limerick County, said "the situation remains serious and precarious". He said Dr Holohan told the meeting he had given serious consideration to slowing down the pace of restrictions being eased, but that was not being advised at this time.

AstraZeneca doses

Elsewhere, the interval between doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine is to be reduced on a phased basis, Mr Donnelly announced

However, the plan to reduce the interval in stages from 12 weeks to eight is contingent on supplies.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Mr Donnelly and the vaccine taskforce have all been in contact with AstraZeneca to stress the urgency of supplies arriving in Ireland "as agreed", the Minister said on Friday.

“The reduction in the length of the interval between doses of this vaccine will benefit in excess of 400,000 people who are waiting on a second dose and who will now get the protection of being fully vaccinated earlier,” he said.

Under the phased approach being adopted, those who are due a second dose of AstraZeneca over the coming fortnight under the existing 12-week schedule will receive it as planned.

Meanwhile, the Limerick surge is yet to show an impact on local hospitals. A UL Hospital Group spokesman said there are no Covid-19 patients in critical care in University Hospital Limerick, and there are seven confirmed positive cases in the hospital. The impact on hospital services has been “low” compared to the peak in January, but the hospital continues to admit patients seriously unwell with Covid-19.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times