State ‘absolutely on track’ for September reopening of schools

Acting chief medical officer ‘uncertain but optimistic’ about reducing infection rate

 Dr Ronan Glynn, acting chief medical officersaid Dr Glynn said the spread of the virus had stabilised over the past week. Photograph:  Colin Keegan/ Collins

Dr Ronan Glynn, acting chief medical officersaid Dr Glynn said the spread of the virus had stabilised over the past week. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins

 

The country was “absolutely on track for children to go back to school in September” based on how the Covid-19 infection rate has stabilised, the State’s acting chief medical officer said.

Speaking at the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) briefing on Thursday, Dr Ronan Glynn urged people to keep following public health advice and to stay physically distant over the next five weeks to reduce the rate further “to achieve that aim of getting children back to school”.

Reopening schools was one of three priorities for the NPHET, he said; the others are reopening healthcare services and protecting the most vulnerable in society.

Nine further coronavirus-related deaths and seven new confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported by NPHET on Wednesday, bringing total deaths to 1,763. Dr Glynn pointed out that eight of the deaths were late notifications and had occurred in April, May and June.

Death register

He said that late notifications were “not unusual” as deaths did not have to be official registered for three months. He recognised that this was a “difficult time” for families but he urged them to register deaths “as quickly as possible so it can feed into our decision-making process”.

The new confirmed cases of the disease brought the total number to 25,826.

Dr Glynn said the spread of the virus had stabilised over the past week after transmission had increased over the previous two weeks.

“It is absolutely early days. Last week we were uncertain and worried. The week before we were uncertain and pessimistic. This week we can be uncertain but optimistic,” he said.

Professor Philip Nolan, chair of Nphet’s Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, estimated that the reproduction rate or “R” number was about 1.1 but “could be as high as 1.4”.

Anything over one indicates the virus is still spreading; below means it is being suppressed.

A figure of 1.4 means for every five people infected by the virus it will spread to seven others.

Reproduction number

The estimated “R” number was down from between 1.2 and 1.8 a week ago.

Prof Nolan said that there were 18 new Covid-19 cases being confirmed every day on average over the past week, compared with 19 a day last week and nine a day four weeks ago.

“This week, it seems that we have achieved some level of stability,” he said.

He said that it was “too early to tell” for certain that the infection rate had stabilised.

Health officials would have to see this continuing “for a week to 10 days before we would be comfortable to say that we had arrested the increase in cases”, he said.

Still, he said that this was “good news” that the public had shown that they had reduced the transmission by taking individual actions on the back of warnings over recent weeks.

Dr Glynn said the latest data on Covid-19 in the State was “the start of something positive and we need to see it continue in the same way over the coming weeks”.

He told the briefing that it was “too early” to decide whether remaining pubs, which do not serve a substantial meal, could reopen again on August 10th.

Asked whether he was fearful that reopening pubs first would prevent schools reopening, he said that pubs were “one of the highest risk environments” and that a decision would have to be taken on whether to reopen them in two weeks’ time based on where the virus was then.

“We can’t do anything to jeopardise the overarching priorities,” he said.

Median age

Over the last 14 days, 272 new confirmed cases of the disease were notified to Nphet, while 183 people were infected over that period giving an infection rate of 3.8 for every 100,000 people.

Dr Glynn said that of the 272 cases the median age was 38 years of age and that 58 per cent of the people infected were under the age of 45. A third of the infections were healthcare workers.

Dr Colm Henry, the HSE’s chief clinical officer, said there was a sense among some young people that they were “invulnerable” to the disease and this had led to the drop in the median age of people becoming infected and a reluctance by some to come forward to be tested.

He said the average number of close contacts of infected young people being identified was as high as eight or nine, much higher than the average of five across all cases.

Suppression

Earlier on Thursday, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly described the reduced Covid-19 rate as “some good news” although the number of cases per week has been rising.

It had gone in the last four weeks “from 61 cases in a week, up to 93 cases, then up to 124 cases, And last week we hit 143 cases.”

But he added that “at the same time the average close contacts is still quite high and more than five”.

The Minister told TDs that 51,000 tests had been carried out in the last week.

“And we have a very low positivity rate of 0.3, which suggests that the prevalence of the virus in the population is low”.

Social Democrats TD Roisin Shortall said she had been told that only 7 per cent of people arriving in Ireland are contacted about being in self-isolation and only half of those who are contacted take the call.

That meant only 3.5 per cent of passengers were followed up on and this was “unbelievable” given the sacrifices the public had made to suppress the virus.