Saturday, November 20, 2021

Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan

THE current level of COVID-19 in Ireland is having a negative impact on the health of the people of Ireland and placing an enormous burden on our entire health system, from public health to general practice to our acute hospitals.

Non-COVID care – including cancer surgery, cardiac care, hip and knee replacements, mental ill-health and all of the common ailments that, if identified and treated promptly, may be prevented from deteriorating further – continues to be severely impacted.

We are all, understandably, very tired of this pandemic. Time and again we have asked the Irish people to take on board public health messaging and act for the collective good. And time and again the vast majority have listened to that message and responded.

Through small but vital individual and collective actions we can turn this around.

Over 90% of those eligible have come forward for vaccination and this high-level of vaccination uptake is having a positive effect, especially in preventing severe illness, hospitalisation, and deaths. We know that booster vaccines will add to this protection. They are already having a positive impact in those who have received them. It is really important that if you are called for your booster, you come forward for it straight away.

At high levels of transmission, we are very vulnerable to sudden, unsustainable surges of infection, such as we are seeing at the moment. It is for this reason that we must now ask people to continue to heed public health messages. We know that this call is more difficult to respond to now than at any time previously.

Most restrictions have been removed and society has largely reopened. We know that, as a result, many people feel unsure about what they should or should not be doing. People can now choose to engage in any number of different activities, across any number of different locations. However, this does not mean that every environment available to you is a low-risk setting for COVID-19.

It is critically important that everyone is aware of the public health measures you can take to protect yourself and help stop the spread of this disease. The core public health advice to people remains the same.

Focus on these five actions to reduce your risk and keep yourself and your family safe over the coming weeks:

If you have cold or ‘flu symptoms isolate immediately and get a PCR test, not an antigen test

The single most important thing you can do if you have symptoms is to self-isolate straight away and book a PCR test online or contact your GP. If you get a PCR test result which does not detect COVID-19, you should still isolate until 48 hours after your symptoms have settled. This can help you to avoid passing COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses on to your friends, family, or work colleagues.

Prioritise who you need to meet

This does not mean staying at home. It does not mean avoiding all contact with others. But the reality is that the more people you meet up with, the greater your risk of catching COVID-19. And remember, we are more likely to contract COVID-19 from someone we know – a friend, a work colleague, a teammate – than a stranger passing by in a shop or on the bus. We are asking everyone to reduce their contacts in whatever ways make most sense for them. This will include working from home unless it is necessary to attend in person; if meeting with people from outside your household keep the group small; avoid crowded spaces and keep your distance from people not in your group.

Meet others outdoors and open windows when indoors

Try to meet up with other people outdoors. If indoors, keep your distance and avoid poorly ventilated spaces – virus particles can build up in these spaces, particularly if people are shouting, singing or coughing and this increases your risk of catching COVID-19. If you are having visitors, open windows regularly to keep the air moving and blow the virus away. If you are organising an event indoors, then you should ensure that the room is well ventilated.

Wear a mask

You should wear a mask whenever you are in crowded outdoor or indoor environments, including in shops, on public transport, in cinemas and theatres. People aged 70 years and older and those of any age who are immunocompromised should wear a medical grade face mask. It is very important that face masks are worn properly – covering the area from nose to chin.

Use the right test and understand what the test result means

If you have symptoms of COVID-19 you should isolate and book a PCR test online or contact your GP. You should NOT take an antigen test; a ‘negative’ antigen test result does not mean that you don’t have COVID-19 and you will still need to continue isolating and get a PCR test. Unfortunately, our data suggests that the majority of people who are using antigen tests at present are symptomatic and that of those, the majority who get a ‘negative’ result are incorrectly assuming that this means they no longer have to self-isolate or get a PCR test – potentially placing many others at risk of COVID-19.

You should only consider using an antigen test if you have NO symptoms of the disease and only as a further additional tool, along with all of the other public health measures, to effectively combat COVID-19. If this antigen test is ‘positive’ then you need to self-isolate and arrange a PCR test. If the antigen test is ‘negative’, you may still have the virus, and, therefore, you should continue to adhere to all other public health measures.

We can change the trajectory of this disease. Small changes, by all of us, will make a big difference collectively. Together, we can break the chains of transmission and bring down disease incidence. By doing so we can have a real impact on the number of people who end up seriously ill and in hospital  in mid – December.

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