A total of 6,000 nursing home residents and staff in the west have been tested for Covid-19 as part of a mass countrywide initiative aimed at identifying those affected by the virus in these facilities.
The testing programme began almost two weeks ago when it was decided that nursing homes and residential care homes for older people should be prioritised in the testing blitz.
The global coronavirus pandemic has impacted nursing homes and residential care centres for older people particularly with many lives being tragically lost to the virus as facilities struggle to cope once it enters their doors or battle to keep it out.
Breda Crehan-Roche, the chief officer of the HSE’s Community Healthcare West, said her organisation is working closely with its colleagues in the National Ambulance Service to carry out testing at the 93 residential facilities for older people in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon. These comprise 73 private nursing homes and 20 public centres (16 community nursing units and four district hospitals ). The total bed capacity for these private and public facilities is 3,829.
“We are doing mass testing in nursing homes, we’ve a lot done already,” she told this newspaper. “It began last Friday week and nearly 30 community testers across the three counties are working alongside the National Ambulance Service.
“The HSE is also working closely with all the nursing homes providing advice on infection prevention and control and it has put in staff - nurses and health care workers - to assist them. We make daily contact with every nursing home.
"We are also providing accommodation for staff, for example, nursing home or HSE staff or people from voluntary organisations, who live with someone vulnerable [to the virus]." These employees, fewer than 50 in all, who are based in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon, are accommodated in local hotels.
As part of the HSE's system-wide response to Covid-19, community assessment hubs have been set up so that patients who are confirmed as Covid positive and who require face-to-face clinical assessments, can attend one of those centres, as close as possible to where they live, in the west. People can access these hubs by GP referral only.
The Galway hub, which was set up in mid April, is located at Unit 3 in Merlin Park Hospital. This is one of three such assessment centres which have opened across Community Healthcare West (Galway, Mayo and Roscommon ). The other facilities are located at the County Clinic in Castlebar, Co Mayo and at the Primary Care Centre in Castlerea, Co Roscommon.
The aim of the hubs is to divert mildly symptomatic patients over 16 years, who require medical assessment, away from the acute hospital system. Patients can be clinically assessed by a team of nurses, doctors, and physiotherapists in these community facilities. Community assessment and management of patients with confirmed and presumptive Covid-19 will also assist in minimising the risk of community transmission of the virus.
The majority of patients assessed in these hubs will be able to return home and continue their care and recovery. Some may need to be referred to self-isolation units if they are unable to do this in their own homes. Others may need to be transferred to an acute hospital for treatment.
It was originally intended that the assessment hubs would be open for up to 12 hours, seven days a week if there was sufficient demand for the service. However, they are currently operating shorter hours because the numbers attending are "not huge", according to Ms Crehan-Roche. Fewer than 50 people in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon have attended these centres which she describes as "fabulous faciltiies" and "great assets" to local communities.
People in the west seeking testing for Covid-19 must be referred by their GP, and are offered an appointment in less than 24 hours at the Community Healthcare West's drive-through testing centres at Galway Airport, MacHale Park in Castlebar, Co Mayo, and at the Lodge in Co Roscommon. Up to 500 tests a day can be carried out at both Galway Airport and MacHale Park and 60 in Roscommon. The latter number can be ramped up, if necessary. The testing centres, which previously operated in Renmore and Craughwell, are closed but could become "activated very quickly, if necessary", Ms Crehan-Roche said. Test results are available within one to three days.
The broadening of the eligibility criteria for Covid-19 testing, which was announced last week and means new patients need only have one of three key symptoms, a fever, cough, or shortness of breath to qualify, has resulted in more people attending the testing centres. However, the numbers did not increase "significantly", she said.
"Right now, we are not seeing a huge demand for testing. We are taking this as a positive sign. But we must remember that the virus is still here, it is highly contagious, and it would be very easy for the whole thing to spread.
"People are doing what they were asked to do in terms of social distancing, hand hygiene, and cough etiquette and that certainly has helped. These measures are helping to save lives. We have flattened the curve. The evidence is there, it [the virus] has slowed down but we can't relax. It would take very little for it to rage again."