HSE answers questions over breakdown in contact tracing system

Coronavirus – Thu May 14, 2020, © PA Media
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By Michelle Devane, PA

The HSE has apologised after asking almost 2,000 people who received a positive Covid-19 result to alert their own close contacts due to a breakdown in its contact tracing system.

Niamh O’Beirne, national lead for testing and tracing at the HSE, told an Oireachtas committee the rapid rise in coronavirus cases earlier this month had “exceeded the capacity” of the Irish tracing system.

She claimed asking people who tested positive for the virus to notify their own contacts was the “only viable option” available to them to “reset the system”.

It emerged earlier this month that the HSE had asked a group of people to tell their own close contacts of their positive test result and to ask them to arrange a test through their GPs to check their own infection status.

Ms O’Beirne was one of a number of HSE representatives who appeared before the health committee via video link on Wednesday to face questions over the breakdown in its contact tracing system.


She said the decision was taken to ensure that each person was informed “as quickly as possible” and to allow them to be “aware of their status and to take action to care for themselves, and protect others from infection”.

“While this was clearly not ideal and we appreciate the impact on those affected, it was deemed to be the only viable option in order to deal with the most recent cases quickly and reset the system,” she said.

“We apologise to the 1,971 people impacted and are this week going to call everyone we missed to check they were able to identify contacts and advise them to be tested.”

Capacity struggles

She said the decision was taken to “maintain effective turnaround times” for the population at large as the system “struggled with capacity”.

She told politicians that six weeks ago they were making 8,500 calls per week, but that figure had increased in the last week to more than 38,000 calls.

But Ms O’Beirne said the contact tracing system was “back on track” since October 23rd, and that all close contacts were being informed within 24 hours of the notification of a positive case.

She said the HSE plans to recruit up to 800 contact tracers “to ensure that we can address future demand”.


At that point, she added, the health service would review the requirement for further recruitment.

“Over 800 people are through the interview process, 274 new staff have been taken on board to date, with a further 90 staff expected to be on board by the end of this week,” Ms O’Beirne said.

“We will continue bringing in 60-70 new staff to the service every week over the coming period.”

HSE chief Paul Reid apologised over the contact tracing breakdown last week.

It comes as the public health service tries to get to grips with a second surge of coronavirus cases.

Some 111,660 tests have been completed in the past seven days with a positivity rate of 5.7 per cent.

There are 327 patients in hospitals with Covid-19 including 41 people in ICU.

Mr Reid said hospitals, testing and tracing systems in many EU countries are under severe strain and many have greater capacity than Irish hospitals for beds.


He tweeted: “Many have greater capacity than our hospitals for beds & ICU. I know its hard on many, but what we continue to do is protecting us to date from ending up in the same place.”

The Department of Health confirmed on Tuesday they had been notified of 720 cases linked to the virus and five further deaths.

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