Up to 10,000 Covid-19 tests will be carried out weekly in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon by mid May, according to the Tony Canavan, the chief executive of the Saolta University Health Care Group which runs the local public hospitals.
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.
Experts also say that casting their net wider will give them a clearer picture of the spread of the virus - the first case of which was confirmed in this country two months ago - in the community.
Mr Canavan said the importance of testing could not be overemphasised. “Testing is really important as we go forward,” he told this newspaper. “It is the only way we know about what is happening with the virus in the community. The HSE is attempting to increase testing capacity across the country to 100,000 tests a week.
“As 10 per cent of the population lives in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon this means that about 8,000 to 10,000 tests will be carried out here each week, it is hoped to reach that target by mid May. We are trying to anticipate the likely effects of this. The increased testing could result in greater numbers of admissions to hospitals. One of our concerns is that when you increase the rate of testing it will impact on staff and there could be more difficulties in staffing some services. But this [testing] has to be done and we need to take decisions now to support that.”
He said the widening of the eligibility criteria for testing was aimed at “pushing numbers up” and getting a “better picture” of virus numbers and trends in the community.
'People have been compliant for quite a long time and it is important to maintain that discipline'
The chief executive of Saolta, which provides acute and specialist services in seven hospitals on five sites - Galway (UHG, Merlin Park, and Portiuncula in Ballinasloe ), Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, and Donegal - said while “real progress” has been made in suppressing Covid-19, the situation remained precarious. He warned that it would be all too easy to lose ground and appealed 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 - that 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.
No room for complacency
“People have been compliant for quite a long time and it is important to maintain that discipline. If they think about the scenes from other countries, such as Spain, Italy, and some states in the United States.... We have managed to avoid that so far because people have been so disciplined.
“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.”
While the coronavirus curve appeared to have been flattened, there was no room for complacency, he stressed. Many of the initiatives introduced as part of the group’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, he said. These included the setting up of a field hospital at the Bailey Allen conference and event centre at NUI Galway and a self-isolation centre for people who cannot do so at home, at the Connacht Hotel on the Dublin Road.
'Our biggest fear was that a massive wave would come with Covid-19 and there would not be enough ICU beds and staffing. That didn’t happen was because people complied with the restrictions'
Mr Canavan said both of those facilities were brought to a point “where they are ready to go”. “Some preparatory work has been done on the field hospital. If we reach the stage where we have to press the button we can respond quickly. But we hope that won’t happen.” Equally, the Connacht Hotel was on standby should it be needed, he said. “But again, my hope is that we would never have to use it. But it is ready to go.”
Local hospitals have been reporting increased numbers attending their emergency departments for general hospital care, he outlined. “Since last week, all our hospitals, UHG, Portiuncula, and Mayo have been a little busier. There has been a 12 per cent 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 per cent in the last week. We see all that as a good thing, people are coming in because they need to be seen.”
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-10 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.”
'Huge' Covid-19 challenges in the community
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.
“One of the other key things we are doing is providing medical and infection control advice for any facility. A consultant geriatrician is providing support for older people. He works directly with GPs,and if a particular nursing home is under pressure, as quite a few area, he will provide telephone support.
“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.”