The chief executive of the Saolta University Health Care Group, which runs the local public hospitals, has appealed to people to rely on trusted, responsible sources for information on the Covid-19 vaccine.
As the country breathes a collective sigh of relief that the end of the virus, which has ravaged communities and economies, threatened to overwhelm health services, and resulted in major loss of life may eventually be in sight, Tony Canavan said it is important that people's opinions about the vaccine are determined by "trustworthy" and "up-to-date information".
Mr Canavan [pictured below] was speaking just as it was announced last night by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen that the EU's 27 member countries, including Ireland, aim to start Covid-19 vaccinations on "the same day" in a sign of unity. "To get to the end of the pandemic, we will need up to 70% of the population vaccinated. This is a huge task, a big task. So let's start as soon as possible with the vaccination together, as 27, with a start at the same day," Ms von der Leyen told MEPs.
The impending arrival of the vaccine has led to Tony Canavan encouraging people to avoid misinformation about it. "If some people choose not to avail of it, this should not be because of misinformation or not getting their concerns addressed.
The head of the Saolta Group, which runs seven public hospitals on five sites in the west and north-west and employs 10,000 people, acknowledged that the public may have questions in relation to the virus.
"We are keen to get good information out there and to answer people's questions," he said. "Of course, people will have questions and some are nervous. If for any reason people choose not to take the vaccine it should not be due to misinformation or not getting their concerns addressed. That's the last thing that we would want to see."
He is hoping for a "really good" uptake of the vaccine, in the region of 60 to 70 per cent, but would be aiming for an even higher figure. "It all depends on what the public health doctors say. We are waiting for the [vaccination] plan to be fully explained to us."
Vaccine rollout to begin 'quite quickly'
He encouraged people to log on to the HSE website (www.hse.ie ), which he described as a trusted, reliable source, for information on the vaccine. "This website is updated regularly and the information is trustworthy."
Mr Canavan anticipated that the vaccine rollout plan will begin "quite quickly" after Christmas. However, people need to exercise caution in the meantime, he warned.
'It will take some time to roll out the vaccine and while it is being rolled out people need to maintain good behaviour. There is still no room for complacency."
He appealed to people to be careful of the choices they make this week and at the start of next week. This was important in terms of suppressing the coronavirus and having "the best Christmas possible".
"We don't have a vaccine available yet and we are entering a very important period," he said. "People need to keep up their guard, limit their social contacts, and maintain physical distance, hand hygiene, and cough and sneezing etiquette. From what we know about Covid-19, the more we interact with others, the greater the opportunity of the disease being transmitted."
Stay the course
He said the movement two weeks ago from Level 5 to Level 3 restrictions gave us more freedom but that also conferred a responsibility on us in relation to the choices we make. "For me, Christmas is all about spending Christmas Day with family. For most people that's what Christmas Day is about."
The hospital chief stated there is a risk that people will relax their behaviour during the festive season both due to the fact that Christmas is traditionally a time to relax and because of anticipating the vaccine.
"It is really important that people bear in mind that we have not started the vaccination programme yet and exercise good decision making. It will take some time to roll it out and while it is being rolled out people need to maintain good behaviour. There is still no room for complacency."
Adapt to new situation
The introduction of the vaccination programme will require health service personnel to work "a little bit differently", he said.
"I think what we will see is people in the health services responding very positively. The expectation is we will be able to mobilise quickly once we know what the [rollout] plan is. One thing we are expecting is that all of our health services will be required to contribute to the vaccine process. This might require people working in hospitals to work outside hospitals. I am conscious that within the hospitals [the seven in the west and north-west] we have 10,000 employees. The vast majority of these are clinical staff, including nurses and doctors. These have the skills to give vaccines. If it [the vaccine rollout] requires us to work in a different way, we will adapt to this."
'The numbers of hospital patients awaiting admission on trolleys has increased'
The number of patients in local hospitals with Covid-19 has remained "low" and "quite stable" in the last week, according to the Saolta CEO. There are fewer than 10 patients in Covid wards in UHG, Portiuncula, Mayo, and Roscommon University Hospitals. There are fewer than five in intensive care beds in the three hospitals (Roscommon hospital does not have an ICU ).
'Trojan efforts' of public
Mr Canavan attributed the low numbers to the Trojan efforts made by the public to drive down the virus during the Level 5 restrictions.
"From a Covid perspective, the position remains stable in the hospitals, the numbers have remained low. But that's only half of the story." The other side is that the numbers of hospital patients awaiting admission on trolleys has increased "very significantly", the hospital group boss said. UHG and Mayo University Hospital were the worst affected in the west.
"This is a particular problem in UHG and Mayo and there have been some difficulties in Portiuncula but it turned a corner [on Tuesday]. At 6.30am on Tuesday morning there were 53 people awaiting admission on trolleys at UHG, that was a very significant escalation. That was not the highest number ever, but it was very, very high. If we never had Covid, I'd be saying we're in a really difficult situation. Twenty-two of these patients were in our AMU (acute medical unit ), they were not in a corridor [in the emergency department] but in an environment that was slightly better. But it is a long way short of a proper hospital bed."
Winter is starting to bite
There were no patients waiting on trolleys on Tuesday at Portiuncula Hospital but there were eight awaiting beds the previous night. While that number may appear small, that is not the case, he said. "For the people who know the layout of Portiuncula, eight is a significant number."
Why are the trolley numbers so high? "In a way, the question is why did it take so long for them to be so high?" said Mr Canavan. Trolley numbers usually rise in winter with increasing numbers of patients, particularly older people, presenting with flus and respiratory conditions. Others may have delayed attending hospital because of concerns over contracting Covid-19 and now can no longer put off attending the ED.
The health chief said well funded supports under the Winter Plan, such as the Home Support Service (formerly called the Home Help Service ), allowed older people to be cared for at home which was a major factor in their not having to access hospital services.
"In a way, we got by OK until this point, what we are seeing now is that winter is starting to bite. Patients were being maintained at home for as long as possible, they were not having to go in to hospital. This is because there is more support in the community. We are lucky this year that we had a well funded Winter Plan. The funding available for this in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon increased by 25 per cent. This is supporting people to stay at home and get back home. That is what people want and it is a huge plus."