The chief executive of the Saolta University Health Care Group, which runs the local public hospitals, reassured the public this week that the coronavirus curve was being flattened, but warned there was no room for complacency.
Tony Canavan said while the local hospitals were “coping well” and there were still a number of general and intensive care beds available across all of its sites in the west there was no guarantee that the peak of this pandemic was “not down the road”.
He said there were 27 patients with Covid-19 in intensive care units in Saolta’s hospitals in Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Donegal, and Sligo. There was a gradual build-up of admissions rather than a surge, he said, which was manageable from a health service perspective.
“We check in with the hospitals on a number of occasions daily and they are all coping well. Activity has increased a little in our hospitals but not dramatically. All of our sites still have beds available and ICU capacity. We are over half way in terms of capacity in all our hospitals.”
Mr Canavan attributed this to the health protection measures introduced by the Government and the public’s willingness to comply with these restrictions. “This is having a direct positive impact on the way it [the pandemic] is being managed by the health service. If these [actions] were not in place our health service would have been overrun.”
'We are not out of the woods yet'
He agreed with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s view that Ireland may yet have to face some of its darkest days. “I would agree with the Taoiseach that there are dark days to come. On Tuesday there were over 40 deaths [nationally] from Covid-19, the most in any single day. The number of deaths each day is rising swiftly, a reminder that this is a serious virus with very dark consequences for some people. That is why it is being taken so seriously.
“We are certainly not out of the woods. We have flattened the curve but we cannot say that a peak is not down the road or that an unexpected event could not occur which would cause numbers to spike. In the last week the numbers [of Covid-19 admissions] have crept up steadily day by day. It is hardly noticeable but they are creeping up by another few beds. The good thing is that it is a gradual build up and the rate of impact on the health service is within what we can manage.”
The chief executive stated that ICUs were still working within their original capacities and so far the hospitals have not had to use any of the additional beds made available to cope with the anticipated increase in patient numbers due to the coronavirus.
“In our ICUs we are still working within our original bed capacity, we have not had to go outside those numbers. We have another phase of ICU beds available on each of our hospital sites, ready to be activated, but we have not had to do that yet.
“We can see from the figures across the country that the people who end up in hospital tend to be older - over 65 - and the figures are fairly evenly distributed between men and women. A lot who would have tested positive for the virus would have underlying conditions. When we look at unfortunately those who have died, the average age is quite high, they tend to be in their eighties. This indicates to us that older people are particularly vulnerable. Regarding younger people who contract it, usually if they have symptoms, these will be quite mild. For older people, the outcomes can be poorer.”
Private hospitals now under the umbrella of the public health system
Galway’s two private hospitals, the Bon Secours and the Galway Clinic, which have come under the umbrella of the public health system for the duration of the pandemic, are both playing a vital role locally, according to Mr Canavan.
Patients from Merlin Park’s Unit 4 (a medical rehabilitation unit for patients who have had strokes and require physiotherapy or occupational therapy ) and Hospital Block (a facility mainly for orthopaedic patients ) were transferred to the Bon Secours Hospital in Renmore last week.
“That went very well. The full capacity of the Bon Secours is 100 beds and the transfers were less than that. The patients and their families were very compliant and co-operated in every way and the staff in the Bon Secours were very welcoming to the patients.
“This [transfer] has freed up 100 beds at Merlin Park Hospital which are now available if they are needed [for recovering Covid-19 patients]. If all the beds at UHG are filled, patients of all ages, would be discharged to Merlin Park Hospital and then they would be discharged home or to nursing homes.”
“Urgent, time-sensitive” surgeries are already taking place at the Galway Clinic as part of the new role being played by the private hospitals during this health emergency. “A very small number of major heart and lung surgeries took place there last week. We have increased the numbers this week.”
Mr Canavan said he was glad to see that people requiring general hospital care were now attending local facilities as there had been a fall-off in numbers recently.
“At the start of the [coronavirus] process people were worried about going to hospital. The number of attendances at our emergency departments and admissions dropped off quite considerably. This ordinary, non-Covid-19 activity has increased now. This is a positive development. We were concerned that people were staying at home when they should be going in to hospital.”
Testing for Covid-19 appointment offered in less than 24 hours
Meanwhile people seeking testing for Covid-19 locally are now offered an appointment in less than 24 hours at either of the HSE West’s two centres in the city and county. These are located at Galway Airport and at the LE James Joyce at Galway Docks.
The health authority’s two other testing facilities in Craughwell and Renmore have been “stepped down”. This was in response to the changes in testing criteria implemented by the Department of Health on March 24 which resulted in a reduction in the overall number of people referred for screening.
A spokesperson for Community Healthcare West praised its staff for the fact that there is no backlog of testing referrals at its Galway centres. “Thanks to the huge efforts of all staff involved, Community Healthcare West wishes to state that we are up-to-date on Covid-19 testing referrals with the waiting time to be offered an appointment for a test being under 24 hours.
“Criteria changes implemented by the Department of Health on 24th March reduced the overall number of people referred for Covid-19 screening and as a result we have currently stepped down two test centres in Craughwell, Co Galway and Renmore, Galway city. Two test centres remain open when required, namely Galway Airport and the LE James Joyce at Galway Port. We continue to prioritise testing of healthcare workers and vulnerable residents in residential settings.”