Taoiseach learned of overwhelmed contact tracing system from media

ireland
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Digital Desk staff

Updated 1.30pm. Additional reporting by Vivienne Clarke.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he was only made aware last night that the HSE intended to ask patients positive for Covid-19 to carry out their own contact tracing.

It emerged last night that thousands of close contacts of positive Covid-19 cases will not be contacted by the HSE after the contact tracing system was overwhelmed by cases last weekend.

Mr Martin said he had no prior knowledge of the situation and first learned of it from media reports rather than from the HSE.

“I got a text last evening which included the Irish Times article, that’s when I first knew. So I wasn’t informed of this operational measure that the HSE undertook in response to the extraordinary demands that they were under at the weekend in the context of the community tracing," he said.

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Mr Martin said the tracing system had been reconfigured to allow contact tracing to take place within 24 hours for 1,500 daily positive cases. He added that an additional 220 people would be hired by contact tracing teams by the end of next week.

However, Labour leader Alan Kelly criticised the delay in recruitment prior to the issue arose: “There’s hundreds of thousands of competent people out there – retired public servants, people who’ve worked in various different organisations and jobs that could have been recruited.”

“It is not conceivable or understandable to the public out there why they were not resourced up until now.”

School tracing

It comes as the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) said principals of some primary schools are spending weekends contact tracing and arranging Covid-19 testing for families.

One school principal described a “completely overwhelmed” system that has meant he must make public health decisions he is “in no way qualified to make”.

“I’ve been left in the invidious position of contacting staff and parents at weekends and at night time, making public health decisions that I’m in no way qualified to make,” Tiernan O'Neill, Principal of Moyross National School in Limerick said.

“The system is completely overwhelmed, and you are dealing with phenomenal people in the public health system, brilliant people, but it’s increasingly obvious that the public health precautions for school communities – they are totally inadequate.”

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12,500 adults and children linked to over 500 schools and childcare facilities have so far been tested for Covid-19, with 352 positive cases recorded.

It comes as the Department of Health has defended the decision to keep schools and childcare settings open, while the rest of the country enters lockdown.

The HSE is to send a text message today asking between 2,000 to 2,500 confirmed cases - who have already been informed by text of their infection - to tell their own close contacts to immediately seek a Covid-19 test, according to the Irish Times.

The move to encourage patients with Covid-19 to call their own contacts due to the overwhelmed system was "disappointing," but it was the right thing to do, the chair of Nphet's modelling group Professor Philip Nolan has said.

The HSE had tried to enhance the contact tracing system and they need to continue to do that so the system will be better prepared, he told Newstalk Breakfast. “A huge amount of this was done during the summer,” he said.

Contact tracers faced an unprecedented number of confirmed cases last weekend, resulting in a backlog of cases over a three day period from Friday to Sunday.

Normally, contact tracers call newly-infected people to ask for their close contacts and then call those close contacts to arrange for them to be tested in order to stem transmission of the disease. The decision was taken to not contact the infected people for their close contacts over fears it would lead to a delay of days in contact tracing.

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The HSE instead decided to focus on tracing the contacts of Monday’s cases, to avoid a backlog amid the continuing high number of cases being reported daily.

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Temporary measure

However, the close contacts of vulnerable people aged over 70 and schoolchildren among the confirmed Covid-19 cases over the three days are still being sought and contacted.

The “one-off temporary measure” was being implemented in consultation with GPs “to ensure those affected are tested as quickly as possible,” Niamh O’Beirne, the HSE’s national lead for contact tracing has said.

Ms O’Beirne said that having patients who tested positive for Covid-19 forward a text to their own contacts would allow the system to “hit a reset button” to get ahead of the disease again.

She told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that the text would go to anybody tested on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. “Importantly what this allows our centres to do is to deal with the most recent cases and effectively hit a reset button to help us get ahead of the disease again," she said.

Not everybody tested on Friday, Saturday and Sunday would receive the text. Certain groups have been “pulled out” she said - children aged four to nineteen, and older people who may need further support.

Ms O’Beirne said that 70 additional staff were being employed every week while interviews were ongoing. She added the aim was to try to get ahead of demand and to have the capacity to deal with 1,500 cases per day in needed.

Covid-19 cases have five close contacts on average, but the HSE said that the removal of school cases, who have more contacts on average, means a potential 8,000 close contacts could be affected.

It comes as 1,269 new confirmed cases of the disease were reported yesterday, with 13 further deaths in the highest daily number since late May.

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