Speaking to the Advertiser news group this week, Mr. Tony Canavan, the Chief Executive of Saolta, which provides acute and specialist services at Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe (one of seven hosiptals in the West of Ireland under its remit ), stated that the widening of eligibility criteria for COVID-19 testing was aimed at “pushing numbers up” and getting a “better picture” of virus numbers and trends in the community.
The broadening of the eligibility criteria, which was announced earlier this week, means that new patients need only have one of three key symptoms - a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, to qualify.
This slight change in the case definition is expected to result in an increase in the number of people being tested for the coronavirus, a possible rise in hospital admissions, and greater demands on staffing services.
“While real progress has been made in suppressing COVID-19, the situation remained precarious. It would be all too easy to lose ground and I appeal to people to continue abiding by the restrictions.
“It doesn’t look like there will be a significant easing of restrictions [in the next week]. If that is the case, it is for a good reason - COVID-19 has not been contained sufficiently. The National Public Health Emergency Team [which was set up in January to co-ordinate the country’s response to the coronavirus] has been very measured in their approach. We have every reason to trust their advice and the direction they give us.
“Real progress has been made but it is very delicate. If we went back very rapidly to where things were seven weeks ago, things would disimprove quickly.”
Many of the initiatives introduced as part of the Saolta’s surge plan to cope with a worst-case scenario should it arise during this national health emergency, were ready to become operational if needed.
Local hospitals have been reporting increased numbers attending their emergency departments for general hospital care.
“Since last week, all our hospitals within the Saolta realm have been a little busier. There has been a 12 percent increase in attendance in the past week. The biggest growth would be in UHG numbers, they would be slightly lower in Portiuncula and Mayo. The number of admissions has gone up too, by over nine percent in the last week. We see all that as a good thing, people are coming in because they need to be seen,” Mr. Canavan remarked.
He reassured people there were vacant intensive care and general beds in all the local hospitals.
“Between Portiuncula, UHG, and Mayo University Hospital, there are 30 ICU beds. We have 17 of those available. In our three hospitals, there are relatively small numbers overall of COVID-19 patients. Our biggest fear was that a massive wave would come with COVID-19 and there would not be enough ICU beds and staffing. The reason that that didn’t happen was because people complied with the restrictions,” Mr. Canavan continued.
Mr. Canavan stated that while increasing numbers of general hospital beds were being occupied there were nearly 90 such beds vacant across its three sites in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon.
He said there were still “huge” COVID-19 challenges in the community, particularly in residential care homes for older people.
“Part of our job in the hospitals is to see how we can support these services. We have done a number of things. Some of our nursing staff have volunteered to go out and help in nursing homes - last Thursday the first two [of 14] went out in Galway. We are looking at this across Mayo and Roscommon, also.
“The other thing we are doing is we are pulling back on recruitment in hospitals. We had a huge recruitment drive in March as we expected the hospitals to be under pressure but that pressure did not materialise. We’re engaging directly with the nursing homes now. The people who worked there [who applied for] and were offered jobs by the HSE are being told their job offers are safe. But right now they are needed where they are and we are asking them to remain there for the moment,” Mr. Canavan concluded.