Pressure on test service amid unforeseen testing levels, says HSE

All possible measures have been takento help the health service cope with what have been unforeseen Covid testing levels in the current wave, the HSE’s lead for testing and tracing has said.

“We’re clearly in a wave at the moment” Damien McCallion told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland. Mr McCallion said over the last “six to seven weeks”, more than one million PCR tests had been carried out.

The pressure on the testing system was coming from clinical referrals and close contacts, he said.

“We’re still getting those same day, next day – they are the first priority for testing. It is the swabbing where the pressure is. Laboratories are performing well – our contact tracing is under pressure but performing well – it’s the access point where the challenge exists.”

Availability of tests varied around the country, Mr McCallion said. The current wave of the virus was putting pressure on all parts of the health system, “not just in testing, but in ICU, hospitals , general practices and so on. That’s clearly creating challenges for us at the moment.

“In the last seven days we’ve done over 200,000 PCR lab tests – to give it in context, in the last six to seven weeks nearly one million people have had PCR tests, when you think of our population those are huge numbers.”

“We’ve been continuing to recruit right through this, that has never stopped. We have identified measures with the private sector that have helped to bolster capacity.

“But ultimately when you’re in a wave like we’re in at the moment, where the demand is so significant right across the health care system, there will always be constraints on resources – whether that’s ICU, general practice, testing – so at the moment we’re hitting levels that none of us ever thought we’d hit – 100,000 was seen as the gold standard – we’re doing 200,000 a week.”

There has nevertheless been some criticism of aspects of the HSE’s organisation of both the testing and booster programme and the organisation apologised after dozens of people were notified by text they had a Covid-19 booster jab appointment at Fairyhouse but were later turned away after queueing for hours for the injection.

When asked about antigen testing in schools, Mr McCallion said no one test in any scenario was a silver bullet and that a suite of measures was required.

No further Covid restrictions will be imposed by the Government this week, as Ministers and public health officials wait until at least the end of next week before deciding if further measures are required to tackle the fourth wave.

Ministers and officials said they saw tentative signs the huge recent spike in infections, hospital cases and ICU admissions was beginning to abate, though Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it was too early to be definitive.

Elsewhere, the executive director Europe of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Rob Butler has said that compulsory vaccination would be a last resort in the fight against Covid-19.

The vaccine mandate was one tool in the tool box, he told Radio’s Morning Ireland.

“Compulsory vaccination can but does not always increase uptake, and there are lessons of history here that we have to take into account.

“Mandates often come at the cost of trust and social inclusion that can polarise communities so mandates have to be used with care. It’s a healthy debate to have now. I would say it is our last resort.”

Asked about the WHO position on US plans to vaccinate the under-12s, Dr Butler said: “We recommend with the Pfizer vaccine, children over 12 years of age – that is the recommendations by our special advisory group of experts at global level; in that age group we do promote vaccination, so in that sense, yes.”

The WHO was constantly looking at every age group in real time about vaccination, he said, adding the bigger question was how to get the 45 per cent that are eligible for vaccine vaccinated. In some countries there were very low levels – that was due to three Cs — complacency, convenience and confidence,” Mr Butler said.

Some countries did not have confidence in the vaccine or in the authorities that deliver them, he said, adding there were also issues of access and service delivery in some countries.

Dr Butler also said there was a need to promote booster vaccinations among the elderly, healthcare workers and the immunocompromised.

“The other stablisers which would make a real difference is ventilation and more work on treatment and therapeutics. This is a moving target, we have to wait and see if three doses will be sufficient for a longer period or life long immunity.”

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