The chief executive of the Saolta University Health Care Group, which runs the local public hospitals, acknowledged this week that the threat from Covid-19 would remain with us for the forseeable future but stressed there were many reasons for optimism.
He also confirmed that there are currently about 30 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon while there are fewer than five patients with confirmed Covid-19 in the ICU departments of University Hospital Galway and Mayo University Hospital. There are no cases at Portiuncula University Hospital’s ICU.
Tony Canavan said one of the key reasons was the public’s willingness to comply with the restrictions imposed to halt the spread of the virus. He praised people for their dedication and appealed to them to continue abiding by the guidelines in a bid to defeat it.
Speaking to this newspaper, he reassured people that the health service was committed to working with the community to find solutions to manage this pandemic, both now and in the future, and helping society recover from its the adverse effects.
“I am very optimistic and the reason is because people have been so good, so disciplined. They have been doing the right thing over the last couple of months.
'People were not circulating in the community, they were not meeting up, they were staying home. Because of that, the impact on the health service was not as great as we would have expected'
They have been hugely dedicated and demonstrated discipline, resilience, and innovation and I am very optimistic that we can keep going. We do need to say to people that it [halting the spread of the virus] has worked, we see that in the numbers. But we need to stick with it, we are not there yet."
As some of the restrictions were lifted this week people have a "little bit more freedom", he said, but we should not view this as a signal that "everything is sorted".
"We are not there yet. One of the key messages I am hoping people will hear is we really need to hold firm and do the things we have been doing for the last few months. That's why I am saying to people to go back to the HSE website (HSE.ie ) and look at the advice given two months ago which is still relevant. I'm confident if people get the advice, we'll get through this and get by.
We, as a whole community, have demonstrated in the first couple of months that we have it within ourselves to take steps to manage it [the virus]. We will be living with this for some time. As we move forward we will come up with solutions to manage it and to deliver the health service we need to adapt to the requirements of the future and to allow society get back on its feet."
The chief executive of Saolta, which runs seven public hospitals on five sites - Galway (UHG, Merlin Park, and Portiuncula ), Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, and Donegal, stated the virus has been suppressed and its impact on public health limited because of the restrictions in movement introduced by the Government.
"People were not circulating in the community, they were not meeting up, they were staying home. Because of that, the impact on the health service was not as great as we would have expected it to be. My concern now since Monday is there are more people out and about in the community, more going to work, more retail outlets open, that movement of people is my concern."
Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon
If the number of Covid-19 cases were to increase again and intensive care unit (ICU ) figures were to escalate the good work carried out could be undone, he warned.
"It would take very little to put real pressure [on the health service]. The fear would be that the progress made so far would start to unravel."
Mr Canavan said there has been a reduction in the number of new cases of the virus recently. "Over the last week and a half it has been very much a downward trend. You can often have a day where the numbers go up a bit or drop suddenly but it is the trend that's important, the last week or two."
"There are currently about 30 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon while there are fewer than five patients with confirmed Covid-19 in the ICU departments of University Hospital Galway and Mayo University Hospital. There are no cases at Portiuncula University Hospital's ICU."
"These figures mean we still have capacity in our ICUs to deal with problems if they arise. When you look across the country during the peak [in virus cases] in mid April the number of patients in hospitals with Covid-19 was 879. The number now is 390. ICUs hit their peak in mid April at 156 patients across the whole country, by mid-May the number is 56."
Increasing numbers of people have been attending local emergency departments for general hospital care in recent weeks. This comes in the wake of a major drop in attendances during the early stages and peak of the virus. The daily numbers recorded last week were on par or slightly greater than the figures for the same period last year. On Monday May 11 there were 236 attendances at UHG's emergency department, for example.
'The pace of patients flows in hospitals has "slowed down a lot" and there was a need to increase this a little, but it must be done "safely"'
Mr Canavan said while this is to be welcomed and means people are no longer delaying seeking medical attention because of fears of contracting the virus, there are now fewer vacant beds available should they be needed.
"When emergency department attendances go up, the number of patients admitted also goes up. We still have vacant [general hospital] beds on all our sites, we were keeping these beds vacant so they would be there when needed. But I am concerned that they have been reducing quite a lot in the last week. This is not a bad thing, it means patients who need care are attending [hospital]. GPs are referring them and people are more confident about attending, they are less concerned about contracting Covid-19."
'We got good news from the Government'
The movement of patients from hospitals has slowed down significantly during the pandemic. The current nursing home situation is a factor in this. Some are still struggling to manage the virus which means that patients who reside there, but were recently hospitalised, are unable to return right now. Mr Canavan said at the moment the pace of patients flows in hospitals has "slowed down a lot" and there was a need to increase this a little but it must be done "safely".
He outlined there are still vacant beds in Merlin Park Hospital. "They were kept vacant for Covid-19 [patients] and were our safety net. We tried to avoid using them but will start to use them by early next week." These 100 beds may now be used as acute beds for non-Covid-19 and medical patients.
The health chief welcomed the Government's move this week to make the influenza vaccination freely available later this year to children under 13 years and all at risk groups. The decision has been widely hailed amid concerns of the potential impact should a second wave of Covid-19 hit at the same time as the winter flu.
"We got good news from the Government regarding making the flu vaccine more widely available. It shows good planning, these decisions need to be taken now while managing Covid-19. The flu is a very significant feature in all our health services and it claims hundreds of lives every year. Hopefully there will not be the same pressure on services when we come to next winter - December '20/January '21.
"We've done reasonably well in the health service with the flu jab. About 45 per cent of all healthcare workers got it. Getting these figures higher this winter would be really, really important."