Coronavirus: Testing capacity up 20% in a week, says department

Trials on antigen tests being conducted around State; tracing regime under fire

A test sample of a suspected case of coronavirus. Photograph: Marijan Murat/DPA/AFP via Getty

A test sample of a suspected case of coronavirus. Photograph: Marijan Murat/DPA/AFP via Getty

 

The HSE has increased its weekly testing capacity from 100,000 to 120,000, a rise of 20 per cent in the course of one week, according to the Department of Health.

It has not been disclosed if the additional testing capacity has been the result of outsourcing or utilising existing laboratory facilities.

However, the department said on Sunday it was confident that testing capacity would be expanded further in the coming weeks.

It also said it was conducting trials on rapid antigen tests at different sites throughout the State and hoped it would soon form part of the national response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Ireland has consistently performed at the upper end in Europe in respect of tests per 100,000,” the department said in a statement.

There has been criticism of the State’s system for contact tracing amid claims of delays in getting in touch with people who were close contacts of confirmed cases.

On Sunday, Michael McNamara, an Independent TD for Clare, said the State had failed to put in place an effective tracing system.

He said that people from Co Clare had been in contact with him were saying they were getting calls as late as six days after a case was detected.

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
282 65

Mr McNamara, chairman of the Oireachtas all-party Covid-19 committee said a German academic, Prof Kristen Schaffer, working in the Irish hospital system, had told the committee that “our tracing system was simply not working”.

The department said that the HSE was currently recruiting 700 people to take swabs for Covid-19, as well as 500 contact-tracing staff in response to the rise in cases.

“Nearly 140 new staff began work in the past two weeks. Between 60 to 70 extra tracing staff are scheduled to start every week for the foreseeable future” it said in a statement.

Antigen testing

Separately, the Minister of State for Transport Hildegarde Naughton said the State was working to introduce rapid testing such as antigen testing and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which would be used at ports and airports to facilitate people travelling in and out of the country.

Ms Naughten told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics the tests might be available in a number of weeks but certainly within months.

Meanwhile, a number of private hospitals have expressed their unwillingness to sign up to a draft contract offer from the HSE to provide up to 40 per cent of their capacity, for up to two years, to help the public health system as it copes with a surge in coronavirus infections.

Several private hospitals will help but were surprised at the HSE’s offer, which seeks an option to switch over a large share of their activity at five days’ notice when their hospitals are busy treating their own patients.

“There is a willingness to help but it is not clear what we are being asked to do,” said one private hospital source.

At least one private hospital appears set to reject the draft contract. Brian Fitzgerald, deputy chief executive of the Beacon Hospital in Dublin, told an Irish Hospital Consultants Association event last week that his board was “not minded” to sign the contract.

Playing catch-up

The State’s three-month takeover of the 19 private hospitals in the early stages of the pandemic, at a cost of €115 million a month, caused tensions as the hospitals were underused and the deal has left them busy now catching up with procedures that were not carried out earlier in the year.

Dr Gabrielle Colleran, vice-president of the IHCA and a consultant paediatric radiologist, said on Sunday there was a “huge amount of learning about how to not to do it” from the first deal.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio, she rejected the “top-down approach” of that deal and said there could be a “much more agile, integrated and collaborative approach” where the most likely successful outcome for patients was local public hospitals engaging with local private hospitals.

The Private Hospitals Association said that the “ongoing provision of existing services and business continuity for the duration of any agreement period will remain an absolute priority”.