Harris challenges HSE to speed up turnaround time for Covid-19 test results

Some restrictions may be eased on May 5th but social distancing to remain until vaccine found, says Minister

The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, has said that research has showed that 120,000 people in Ireland would have contracted coronavirus in a single day had the Government not put restrictions in place. Video: RTÉ

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The health service faces a “key challenge” to speed up the turnaround time for coronavirus test results once it clears a backlog later this week, Minister for Health Simon Harris has said.

Mr Harris said the Health Service Executive still has “work to do” to increase the speed at which it can produce test results among the wider community.

However, the Minister has said that testing will only be one of a number of factors to determine if restrictions to slow the spread of the virus can be eased in three weeks’ time.

Restrictions will remain in place until May 5th and Mr Harris and Dr Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, raised the prospect of easing some measures at that point.

But both said social distancing restrictions would remain in place until a vaccine for coronavirus is found. A team in Oxford University has expressed confidence a vaccine could be ready by September, although other experts say it could take a year or more.

It was announced last night that 31 more people have died from Covid-19 in the Republic. There are now 10,647 known coronavirus cases in the State, and 365 people have died from the virus.

Health officials announced a further 527 confirmed cases on Monday, along with 465 further positive cases from tests sent to a German laboratory to clear the backlog.

The HSE is also starting an investigation into how people were incorrectly informed their test for coronavirus was negative, when in fact they had contracted the virus.

A spokeswoman said the HSE had identified “less than 100 people” who were incorrectly informed about the result of their test.

The error occurred in tests where the original result was unclear or “indeterminate”, but people were informed it had been negative, she said.

Tests backlog

HSE chief executive Paul Reid said the backlog in testing had been reduced from a high point of about 35,000 people waiting for results to some 11,000.

He told a briefing in Dublin that 25 laboratories were now being used to examine Covid-19 tests, including 20 in hospitals, the national lab in UCD, a Department of Agriculture facility and in Germany. Mr Reid said nearly 8,000 tests were completed on Saturday.

“That backlog will continue to be reduced and will be reduced completely by the end of this week,” he said.

Six deaths were announced in Northern Ireland, bringing the total number of fatalities to 124. An additional 76 cases of coronavirus were confirmed. A total of 1,882 cases have now been identified in the North.

Social distancing

Although Mr Harris raised the prospect of easing some restrictions – which would be limited at first – he warned: “There isn’t going to be a magic point at the start of May where life as we knew it before the coronavirus can resume. I think, being truthful, social distancing is going to remain a very big part of life not just in Ireland but the world over until we get to a vaccine or effective treatment for the coronavirus.”

He said the key indicators to watch in the coming weeks will be the rate of growth of the virus, the average number of people in intensive care units and the reproductive rate of the virus, which is the rate which measures how many people each infected person is likely to pass the virus on to.

Mr Harris said that the next three weeks will be crucial in halting the spread of coronavirus. He appealed to people to continue to adhere to the rules and recommendations in place.

The State’s testing and contact tracing capacity would also be considerations in easing restrictions, he said. He said the “key challenge” from the point the backlog is cleared is accelerating the turnaround of test results to 48 hours.

“In the hospital setting now they are turning around results very quickly, which is important, but they have a bit of work to do still in the community setting.”

Dr Holohan said that any easing of restrictions would be conditional. “As we identify a restriction that we might ease or remove, there is a possibility the risk of infection will go up and go up more than we think, and we have to be able to pick that up and respond to that quickly,” he said.

The European Commission is expected to urge national governments this week to co-ordinate their exit from coronavirus lockdowns, as it seeks to prevent any repeat of the confusion marked the start of the crisis. It will advise governments to give each other advanced warning of plans to relax border controls, reopen shops, and relax confinement restrictions.

‘Time for vigilance’

Speaking in Geneva, the head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged caution over moves by countries to lift lockdown conditions. He said much was still unknown about the behaviour of coronavirus, and emphasised that case finding, testing and isolating were still crucial.

“We know that in some countries, Covid-19 cases are doubling every three to four days. However, while Covid-19 accelerates very fast, it decelerates much more slowly. In other words, the way down is much slower than the way up.”

Asked whether Europe was approaching a turning point in the pandemic, Dr Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s emergencies programme, said: “We look at the number of confirmed cases and at the number of hospitalisations as the first indicator that things may be stabilising and we’re certainly seeing that.

“Now is time for vigilance, now is time to double down, now is the time to be very, very careful. That doesn’t mean the countries cannot begin to create an exit strategy.”

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