What has changed so quickly? Only last week, the country appeared to be cruising towards shaking off the final shackles of Covid-19 restrictions on October 22.
ut once again the picture is described as “worrying” – with the return of the dreaded phrase that the virus is going in the “wrong trajectory”.
So what has sparked concern and what is it likely to mean for our planned final reopening?
The daily number of Covid-19 cases are on the increase again and growing by around 2pc. Yesterday, the daily toll reached 2,066.The virus is spreading more among all age groups and the positivity rate among those coming forward for testing is around 10pc. Cases have risen by around 43pc in just a week. The highest level of infections are being seen in 19 to 44-year-olds and children under 18. The change is not rapid but at a strong enough pace to raise the alert.
The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital has also gone up and there are 415 in wards across the country today. The unvaccinated make up the majority but they also include fully vaccinated patients. The vaccine is not 100pc effective and people with weakened immune systems as well as older age groups may not have responded as well, leaving them with lower protection. There are 69 Covid-19 patients seriously ill in intensive care today.
Although less than 10pc of adults are unvaccinated, the patients who have not been jabbed are accounting for over two thirds of those in intensive care. Between April and early October, around one in five of these intensive care patients were fully vaccinated. They ranged in age from 30 to 88 with a median age of 67.
Around 300,000 adults are not vaccinated. At this point that is probably a conscious decision to refuse a vaccine rather than being in unsure category. Another 70,000 still have just one jab, which offers lower protection. It might not seem like a lot of people without the shield of vaccination, but the Delta variant is highly infectious. Public experts say the unvaccinated who make up just 10pc of the adult population account for 50pc of admissions to hospital with Covid-19.
Behaviour of the virus
Another phrase to be dusted down is “concerns about the behaviour of the virus”. However, the reality is that the virus is behaving just as it always did and will avail of any opportunity to infect. It is our own behaviour that has changed. Clearly, the return to the workplace, more socialising, more congregating indoors in cooler weather offers greater chance of exposure to Covid-19. The evidence appears to show that less people are reducing their risk in these situations by ditching face masks, not sanitising hands or following physical distancing. There is also anecdotal reports of some restaurants and pubs not checking for the Covid-19 cert among customers. Vaccination alone was never going to be enough without people taking the extra precautions.
Ireland has one of the highest rates of Covid-19 in Europe despite our vaccination coverage. The question has been asked how this could be. However, people who have been abroad to countries like Germany report better and stricter adherence there to the basics such as the wearing of face masks than here. There may be less obvious factors such as better public health management of the virus. But we know now there is no secret formula beyond vaccination and following the basic Covid-19 precautions.
Just a cold
An issue from health officials this winter will be people going to work or some other gathering of people if you are suffering cold-like symptoms. There are a lot of seasonal viruses circulating and just because you are vaccinated, the strong rule will be to stay at home.
The country is far from the grim days of January when the influx of Covid-19 admissions to hospital led to weeks of turmoil. Vaccination has dramatically reduced the harm from Covid-19 in the form of serious illness and death. But clearly the virus continues to take a toll sufficient enough to have 415 patients occupying a bed in a ward or intensive care.
Overstretched hospitals here are already struggling to cope with high numbers of very sick patients with regular illnesses coming through and there were 438 on trolleys waiting for a bed this morning. Couple that with the need to care for patients on record high waiting lists. And there is the threat of flu. Acting now to try to control Covid-19 will keep some rein on the pressure on hospitals.
It’s back to business now for the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) meeting to assess the latest data on Monday. The next few days will give them a clearer picture of what the trend is. As of now, it looks like some or all of the planned lifting of restrictions might be delayed. Also there is the strong likelihood that use of vaccine certs for entry to pubs and restaurants may be extended. Thankfully, the lockdown option is not being talked about. For the remaining sectors who are waiting to reopen, such as the nightclub industry, the next few days will be agonising. But vaccination has left the country in a much stronger place and that will be a core element in any assessment around the way forward.
Another key self-help measure that does not involve sacrifice will be the rollout of booster vaccines to more groups. That now seems inevitable, although who gets them and in what order, has yet to be decided by the National Immunisations Advisory Committee.