A shift to outdoor social mixing has played a major role in the improvement of Covid-19 figures, according to public health officials.
While warning against people returning to the workplace for some months, officials say the latest figures are “better than anything we could have hoped for” two weeks ago.
Case numbers fell 22 per cent this week on top of a 9 per cent fall last week.
Deaths are also significantly reduced, with fewer than five a week in long-term residential care facilities in the past three weeks.
Incidence is dropping in all age-groups, but especially among vulnerable over-65s.
Assistant chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said people should continue to work from home “for at least the next number of months” if possible, until more people are vaccinated.
By July, a substantial proportion of the population will have received at least one dose of vaccine, he pointed out.
A further eight deaths of Covid-19 patients were reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team. This brings to 4,820 the total number of deaths in the pandemic.
Those who died ranged in age from 43 to 92 year and the median age was 79.
Nphet also reported 309 confirmed cases of the disease, bringing to 242,402 the total number of cases in the Republic.
Of the new cases, 107 are in Dublin, 30 in Kildare, 14 in Offaly, 21 in Meat and 14 in Limerick, with the remaining 104 cases spread across 18 other counties The 14-day incidence of the disease now stands at 123 cases per 100,000 people nationally. Offaly has the highest county incidence, followed by Kildare. Sligo has the lowest incidence
The median age of cases is 35 years and 71 per cent are under 45.
The reproduction number, a measure of how many other people a case infects, now stands at 0.7-1, according to Prof Philip Nolan, chair of the Nphet epidemiological modelling advisory group.
Seeking to explain the improved figures, Prof Nolan said it appears that people met up outdoors over St Patrick’s Day and Easter and avoided indoor locations such as workplaces.
Any return to the workplace could seed further cases and make it hard to open up society later in the spring, he warned.
“Social mixing appears to have shifted outdoors. That’s had a positive impact on the incidence of infection.”
All indicators of the disease have shown “significant and positive improvements” over the past fortnight, Prof Nolan said.
There is further clear evidence of the positive effects of vaccination, he said, though Ireland remains in a “relatively high-risk” position until more people are inoculated.
The proportion of cases among healthcare workers has fallen from 5-15 per cent up to January, to 2.5 per cent now, in demonstration of the positive effects of vaccination.
Separately, the percentage of cases in long-term residential care facilities has dropped from 2-8 per cent earlier in the pandemic to less than 0.5 per cent now.
And while incidence is falling 2-4 per cent a week in most age groups, that decrease is 7-9 per cent among the oldest age groups, where vaccination coverage is greatest.
Prof Nolan said it was quite remarkable that people have collectively maintained a near constant level of close contact since mid-February. “That’s what’s keeping the disease under control and may be shrinking it.”
Asked about the re-opening of indoor dining, he said Nphet would in two weeks’ time provide updated advice to Government covering the next few months.
Dr Glynn said the current figures were “better than anything we could have hoped for two weeks ago”. The fact that “we’re in a much better position than we thought we would be” was down to people ‘listening to the messages”.
Illustrating the scale of the improvement, Dr Glynn pointed out that the last time there were no new outbreaks in nursing homes, as was the case this week, was last July.
The last time healthcare worker cases, or cases among over-80 year-olds, were as low as they are at present was last August.
Prof Nolan forecast a “transient” increase in cases among young people arising from the full return to school, but said people shouldn’t get “frightened” by this.
Dr Glynn said there were “pros and cons” to extending the interval between vaccine doses. On the one hand, more people get protected more quickly but on the other, completion of the inoculation programme is extended.
Out of 31,647 people who have attended walk-in testing centres organised by the HSE, 847 have tested positive, Dr Lorraine Doherty, director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, said.
Pilot antigen testing will be carried out in third-level colleges this autumn, she told the briefing, and will also be trialled in nursing homes.
There was an increase of 18,748 vaccine doses administered on figures released on Wednesday. The data, related to Monday last, shows 1,094,964 doess were given of which 769,721 were first doses and 325,243 were second doses.
Earlier Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told the Today with Claire Byrne show that the safest thing by far is to say yes to the offer of a vaccine.
Mr Coveney said it was clear that the AstraZeneca vaccine provides “benefits that far outweigh the risks”.
He called on people to “trust the system” that he said has been decided upon based on risk. “The message needs to be very clear. AstraZeneca is safe. And it’s particularly safe for people over the age of 60, in the context of the threats they face from Covid. People should trust the system because the decisions are being made by public health experts, not by politicians, when it comes to who gets what, and when.”
Mr Coveney said people who refuse to take the first vaccine that is offered to them “then you’re essentially putting yourself to the back of the queue until everybody else gets vaccinated which will certainly take quite some time.”