The chief executive of the Saolta University Health Care Group, which runs the local public hospitals, has appealed to young people to halve their weekly social interactions in a bid to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
Tony Canavan’s appeal came as the number of cases continues to rise and local hospitals prepare to cope with the demands that the second wave of the virus will impose on already busy facilities. There were 14 cases recorded in Galway at the time of going to press.
Images on social media of hundreds of young people congregating in Shop Street and at the Spanish Arch area on Monday night sparked widespread condemnation and appeals for greater adherence to public health guidelines. It is understood that the gardai were alerted to a number of student house parties, also. Both events coincided with the arrival of up to 30,000 students in Galway for the start of the academic year.
Mr Canavan [pictured below] said the major influx of students creates a particular public health concern in that there is a greater risk of transmitting the virus when there is a large movement of people.
People, not parties
“There are individual behaviours, such as parties, which are of concern but our primary concern is the movement of people. This week there was a large influx of young people all together. There was a huge movement of people, with that you get an increased risk of transmission, that’s the concern.”
He acknowledged that young people want to socialise but said limiting their social interaction would benefit everyone.
“It is understandable that students will want to celebrate and go out. From a health service perspective I would appeal to them and to everyone to think about their social interactions over the coming week and look to halve these. Ronan Glynn [the acting chief medical officer] said that, and it is good advice. It applies to everybody. It doesn’t look too far into the future, it asks what can I do this week? That’s the ask of everybody.”
He appealed to people to follow public health advice. “Know when you are doing it that it is not just for yourself but for others. We all have an individual responsibility, young or old, to try and do what we can. Some of our actions will help ourselves and others, such as preventing the spread of Covid-19 to vulnerable people, particularly vulnerable older people.”
He is optimistic that the public will respond to the second wave of the virus with the sense of responsibility and compliance they displayed when the first case of coronavirus emerged in Ireland seven months ago. “There was a very, very positive response, a sense of solidarity.”
He said hospitals in Galway (University Hospital Galway and Portiuncula University Hospital ), Mayo, and Roscommon are getting busier and the intensive care units in Galway and Mayo are full (Roscommon University Hospital does not have an ICU ). However, there are no Covid-19 patients in UHG’s ICU and the number is “very low” in Portiuncula Hospital’s ICU.
'We have 86 people who have died in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon since the start of Covid-19. We need to think of them and the bereaved families they left behind'
The number of Covid positive cases in Covid specific wards at UHG is “very low” also, he said. There are 22 suspected cases. There are no confirmed cases in Portiuncula University Hospital but there are five suspected cases.
He said the local ICUs were working within their standard capability. The fact that they are full reflects that hospitals are getting busier. There are a total of 25 ICU beds in Galway and Mayo hospitals. “We can double that to bring it up to 50 in the next phase and we could push it beyond that. The last wave [of the virus] peaked in April and we were pushed right to the limit of Phase 1. But we hadn’t to go to Phase 2.”
While Covid-19 patient numbers remain small in local hospitals, Mr Canavan, the head of Saolta, which runs seven public hospitals on five sites - Galway (UHG, Merlin Park, and Portiuncula in Ballinasloe ), Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, and Donegal, says he is “extremely concerned”.
“Even though the numbers are low in hospitals what we are seeing is the numbers are increasing quite steadily and the rate of increase is growing. The number of patients in hospital throughout the country has increased in the last week. Also, what is happening in the east coast tends to happen in the west but a week later. When we look at those numbers it gives rise to concern over what we could be facing in the near future and we are preparing for that.”
These preparations include building temporary facilities at two Galway hospitals and refurbishing two wards in Mayo University Hospital in a bid to boost capacity to improve the hospitals’ ability to manage Covid-19.
“A lot of work has been going on in the last two weeks. We have been double checking local arrangements to see where they should be. Secondly, we are trying to press ahead with some building works on some sites. We have almost finished putting in a temporary extension to the emergency department [at UHG]. It gives us more physical capacity. It is a modest increase but it is as much as we can do in a very short space of time.
'We can see an increasing trend with the Covid-19 numbers, there is a reason to describe it as a second wave. The numbers have increased since July and in an accelerated way throughout September'
“In Mayo, we are refurbishing two of our main wards to increase the number of toilets for patients in these wards. A total of 42 beds are lost because of this. We have been working on this for the past four weeks and we hope to have it completed by the end of October.
“We have started ground works for the 50 bed block extension to Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe. That is a long term project and we won’t get the benefit of it this winter. For Covid-specific preparations, we have started work on a temporary outpatient facility and we hope to have that work finished in November.”
His greatest fear is that the hospitals will become overwhelmed as the increase in Covid-19 cases coincides with the winter flu season.
“We can see an increasing trend with the Covid-19 numbers, there is a reason to describe it as a second wave. The numbers have increased since July and in an accelerated way throughout September. My concern is that it would accelerate to the extent that our health service would become overwhelmed and we would not be able to respond to the needs of the population.
Young people getting ill
“My other fear is that vulnerable people would start to become infected again. At the moment we are seeing an increase in cases among young people, a lot are becoming ill, recover, and move on. But for those who are older and clinically compromised, it is different.”
He is also concerned about the level of misinformation circulating and the people who refuse to accept that Covid-19 exists or seek to downplay its gravity.
“I would invite them to look at the number of people with Covid-19 in the west - 1,896 [762 cases in Galway, 686 in Mayo, and 448 in Roscommon]. That’s not a conspiracy, it’s a fact.
“We have 86 people who have died in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon since the start of Covid-19. We need to think of them and the bereaved families they left behind.”