Test and trace: could a struggling system trigger new restrictions?

ireland
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Sarah Mooney
Ireland’s test and trace system is a central part of the country’s response to Covid-19, designed to control the unchecked spread of the disease by rapidly identifying and isolating positive cases.

The performance of the system is one important trigger point in the Government’s Living with Covid-19 plan, which will determine if a region is moved to a higher level of restrictive measures.

Concerns have been raised about the system’s ability to handle rising numbers of referrals, as in recent weeks the serial testing of meat plant workers was suspended and resources redeployed to meet growing demand for testing in the community.

What are the turnaround times?

Recent data from the HSE shows the average turnaround time, from the point a person is referred for a test to the point at which their close contacts are notified in the event of a positive result, currently stands at 2.2 days.

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The average wait time for a test appointment after being referred is just under 24 hours, while it then takes another 28 hours for a swab to be analysed with a result issued from the lab.

The tracing of close contacts is the lengthiest stage of the process as it takes just under two days to complete on average, “including all complex cases and schools.”

The HSE said that 87 per cent of appointments are offered the same day or next day after a person is referred for a test, and it is working to ensure that people receive a testing appointment within 24 hours of GP referral.

Are close contacts turning up for testing?

The average number of close contacts of a confirmed case has ranged from 5.5 contacts to seven contacts per case over the past week.

Close contacts are referred for two Covid-19 tests, one on the date they are identified as a contact, and again seven days after they were in contact with the confirmed case.

Just 65 per cent of close contacts attended their day seven test in the week ending September 13th, while 91 per cent attended their initial test.

Has the system reached its capacity?

The test and trace system currently has a weekly capacity of 100,000 tests per week, managed on a basis of around 15,000 tests completed each day.

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The system has fast approached this maximum capacity, with the HSE reporting more than 14,500 tests completed on both Wednesday and Thursday of last week.

The HSE said “to date we have continuously met all demand for both serial and symptomatic testing,” although serial testing in meat plants was temporarily suspended earlier in September as community demand increased and schools reopened.

The Government’s plan for Living with Covid-19 includes the building of a 3,000 strong “dedicated workforce” for testing, with recruitment currently underway for 700 swabbers and 500 contact tracing staff.

Are tests being sent abroad?

The HSE said it increased its “onshore” laboratory capacity in recent weeks with a network of 46 public and private laboratories currently in use in Ireland.

Labs contracted to the HSE have a daily capacity of 11,000 swabs from community testing, while hospital laboratories then make up the balance of the daily total of 15,000.

The HSE has an “on-going agreement” with a German laboratory partner for a “surge capacity” of an additional 2,000 swabs processed a day if needed.

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The Government’s plan for Living with Covid-19 also sets out targets for the test and trace system, including test centres in each county operating seven days per week with many open 12 hours per day.

There are currently 32 community testing centres in operation and an additional pop-up centre located in Irishtown, Dublin, according to the HSE.

Eight contact tracing centres are currently in operation in Ireland with 280 contact tracers, including centres manned by the HSE and the Defence Forces.

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