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Covid infections may be ‘much higher’ than PCR tests show, Mater consultant warns

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Ireland is on course for another new record high for Covid cases as an expert in infectious diseases warned the figures may not show the full scale of Covid-19 infection in the community.

Daily figures released by the HSE on Thursday show 21,847 positive “swabs” giving a positivity rate of 49.56 per cent – or marginally under one in two.

Positive swabs and confirmed cases are not the same thing, the HSE warned, as some individuals may have tested twice, but data shows the correlation is close.

The seven-day positivity rate for confirmed Covid diagnosis is 39.4 per cent.

The latest figures come as Dr Cliona Ni Cheallaigh, a consultant in Infectious Diseases at the Mater Hospital, said given the huge demand for PCR tests – none were available to book nationwide this morning – and the numbers relying on home antigen testing, lead her to suspect “the true number of cases” may actually be much higher” .

Dr Ni Cheallaigh who is also associate professor of clinical medicine at Trinity College Dublin, said because virus levels were so high in the community people with symptoms and especially those who have a positive rapid antigen test should “definitely” assume they have Covid “and act as if you do”.

She said the best use of the limited PCR testing capacity would be for those “who are not sure” or where the symptoms are not entirely consistent or where somebody has symptoms but a negative antigen test. “They might be the best use of those limited PCR slots,” she said.





Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU


619


93

‘Sensible move’

However, Dr Ni Cheallaigh said she thought it “is probably quite a sensible move” for health authorities to consider reducing the isolation time for a person taking antigen tests from ten days to seven, when they get a negative result on day six and day seven and are asymptomatic.

One Minister told The Irish Times on Wednesday night: “A review of the isolation period will be something on the agenda of Cabinet very early in the new year.

“Omicron is highly transmissible. If numbers continue to rise at the rate they are at now, the sheer numbers of people in isolation will have a huge impact on jobs and the economy.

“It looks like it is milder. The CDC [Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US] has made amendments to cut [isolation]to five days. We will have to look at it.”

Such a system is in place in the UK while the USA has reduced isolation periods further to day five.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland on Thursday Dr Ni Cheallaigh said it was probably sensible to move the isolation period to seven days “because we need to keep our health services staffed and all our other essential services staffed.”

‘Infectious before symptoms’

“It does look like people are most infectious before they get symptoms, which is part of the problem. So looking at a seven-day isolation period with a couple of tests there at the end to make sure as much as possible that someone has cleared the virus, it is not an unreasonable thing to do”.

Dr Ni Cheallaigh said the numbers of people getting Covid-19 in hospital was probably as a result of infection from patient-to-patient, given the ward system where people are sharing the same air.

She said PPE equipment for medial staff was now of a high standard but frontline staff still had to mix in canteens where masks were removed.

In relation to New Year’s Eve celebrations and the possibility on people partying with friends indoors Dr Ni Cheallaigh said people had been very responsible in their actions for two years but given the current level of Covid in the community “I do think if you want not to get Covid I wouldn’t advise mixing at all over this period when levels in the community are so high”.

She said given the level of infection it is very likely that at house parties and bars, “in that room there is somebody with Covid” who might not know they have it but who is spreading it.

“So if you want not to get Covid don’t be in an indoor space without your mask on really over the coming weeks”.

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External investigation into Department ‘champagne party’ needed – Minister

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Minister of State Anne Rabbitte has called for an external investigation into a “champagne party” held by staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs staff in June 2020.

The gathering, which appeared to breach Covid-19 guidance in place at the time, was “inexcusable” and Minister Simon Coveney and his department have further questions to answer, the Fianna Fáil TD told Saturday with Katie Hannon on RTÉ Radio One.

“Having a champagne reception in any government department at that time, I know over in the Department of Health where they worked tirelessly for 23, 24 hours a day, it was far from champagne they were having,” she said.

Ms Rabbitte said an internal report conducted by the department’s current secretary general was not a satisfactory way to handle the matter.

“It’s still within the same department, and we know the answer we will get. I would be one for openness and transparency … it has to be [an external report].”

She added that all departments needed to learn from the mistake.

Officials were photographed in the department celebrating Ireland’s election onto the UN Security Council, and the image was posted on Twitter by the then secretary general Niall Burgess. The tweet was later deleted. At the time of the event, there were strict restrictions on the size of gatherings due to Covid-19.

Speaking on the same programme, Labour TD Duncan Smith said people were angered at the event because June 2020 was a bleak time for most people in Ireland. He said the public had seen other incidents where politicians and others were accused of breaching Covid-19 restrictions.

“These are the elites of society … what has really hurt people is that it really got to the ‘we are all in this together’ philosophy.”

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane agreed there needed to be an independent review of the matter, adding that Mr Coveney needed to come before an Oireachtas committee and the Dáil to gave a “frank and full account” of what happened.

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Dog-owners bite back at beach rules

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Following a series of reports that An Taisce is leading the battle to ban dogs from the State’s 83 blue-flag beaches, the organisation’s Ian Diamond is feeling misunderstood.

“I don’t hate dogs”, Mr Diamond says, pointing out that Blue Flag International – the global body which governs the coveted awards – warned last year that some qualifying beaches were not honouring long-standing rules.

Under what’s known as Criterion 23, the rules declare that beach access “by dogs and other domestic animals must be strictly controlled” and that they be allowed only in “the parking areas, walkways and promenades in the inland beach areas”.

Faced with the reminder, Mr Diamond said he requested last year that local authorities get more time, as it was “not something that can be introduced immediately in the middle of a pandemic when people are under other restrictions.

“You can’t exactly introduce these things overnight, so we were flagging that,” he said, adding that Blue Flag told them to speak to people seeking blue flag status and “come back with proposals” that comply with the rule.

The issue came to national attention following a meeting of Kerry County Council this week, though it was understood then that the rule was an An Taisce demand, rather than being a Blue Flag International obligation.

Dogs and horses

Consequently, Kerry County Council now propose that dogs or horses will not be allowed on blue-flag beaches from 11am-7pm between June 1st and September 15th, or otherwise the county could lose its 14 blue flags.

However, the restrictions are unpopular with some dog-owners: “There’s a lot more important things to be worrying about than dogs on a beach,” said David Walsh, as he walked his pet, Oreo, on Salthill beach.

Dog-owners in Salthill are already not allowed to bring their dogs onto the beach between 9am and 8pm between May 1st and September 30th each year, in line with Blue Flag International’s rules, though penalties are rare.

Mr Diamond says a national application of the rules at blue-flag beaches would not “strictly prohibit dogs being on the beach” during bathing season, outside of peak hours.

Bathing season

“The blue-flag criteria would apply from June 1st to September 15th, within peak usage hours, so bathing hours – that would be mid-morning to early evening,” said the An Taisce officer.

“What it requires is that there would be rules in place in relation to dogs that say [they] should not be in the blue-flag area within those hours and within the bathing season,” Mr Diamond said.

The restriction is based on public health grounds and dates back to 2003: “Dog faeces actually contain a lot of the micro-organisms that cause illness in the same way that human waste would,” he said.

“There’s no zero-tolerance approach to this. If rules are going to be brought in, then people will be consulted as well, you know, brought in unilaterally, and it’s down to the councils responsible for the beaches to bring those in.”

Not everyone disagrees with An Taisce, or Blue Flag: “I don’t think dogs should be on the beach, because of the kids and all that. And a lot of people don’t pick up their poo afterwards,” said a man on Salthill beach.

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Jail for banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on Christmas shopping trip to Belfast

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A banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on a Christmas shopping trip to Belfast has been jailed for seven months.

Police also discovered three of Leeanne McCarthy’s children not wearing seat belts when her car was stopped on the Westlink dual carriageway.

The 41-year-old mother-of-eight initially gave officers a false identity, prosecutors said.

Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard a PSNI patrol car stopped the Ford Focus on November 26th last year.

McCarthy, with an address at Clonlough in Limerick, provided a different name and claimed she did not have her licence with her.

However, checks revealed that a month earlier she had been banned from driving for five years.

A Crown lawyer said: “Three young children were in the rear of the vehicle, none of them wearing seat belts.”

McCarthy initially claimed they only removed the safety restraints when the car came to a halt, the court heard.

Police were told that she took over driving duties from another daughter who had been tired and nearly crashed the vehicle.

McCarthy was convicted of driving while disqualified, having no insurance, obstructing police and three counts of carrying a child in the rear of a vehicle without a seat belt.

Her barrister, Turlough Madden, said she had travelled to Belfast for Christmas shopping.

Counsel told the court McCarthy spent the festive period in custody, missing out on sharing it with her eight children and four grandchildren.

“That’s been a wake-up call and significant punishment for her,” Mr Madden submitted.

“She is a mother who simply wants to go back to Limerick and not return to Northern Ireland.”

Sentencing McCarthy to five months imprisonment for the new offences, District Judge George Conner imposed a further two months by activating a previous suspended term.

Mr Conner also affirmed the five-year disqualification period and fined her £300 (€350) for the seat belt charges.

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