Covid-19 testing will continue at Galway Airport over Christmas – including for reduced hours this Saturday, Christmas Day – as the health service prepares for a predicted increase in cases of the new Omicron variant.
Breda Crehan-Roche, Chief Officer, Community Healthcare West, said 2021 had been a “very difficult year” but improved testing capacity and the effectiveness of the booster vaccine offered hope for living with Covid in the New Year.
Speaking to the Connacht Tribune on Monday, ahead of new lockdown restrictions on hospitality coming into force, Ms Crehan-Roche said the stricter rules were “unfortunate but yes they are necessary” because of Omicron.
“It’s the spread of it, it’s the volume of it, it’s the amount of people that could be sick. There are a lot of unknowns in relation to Omicron. NPHET and the Government had a difficult call to make but we all have to try and stay safe and take responsibility for our own actions,” she said.
Ms Crehan-Roche said there is concern with how fast Omicron was taking hold.
“It’s spreading like wildfire. It’s now the dominant variant, or will be soon. In two weeks it has increased unbelievably fast. With Christmas now, people are tired and want to be able to relax but you just can’t let your guard down at all with Covid.
“You have to stay alert, you have to ensure that you keep to all the measures we know work – hand-washing, social distancing, keeping two metres and ventilation. We’re quite concerned in relation to the Christmas period which is always a family time and time for catching up. We need people to stay on guard,” she said.
Ms Crehan-Roche said it was a “tough year” for healthcare staff, who are “very tired” after two years working through a pandemic.
“We’ve just come through the fourth wave of Covid and now the new variant, Omicron and all that that entails, is quite a stressful time for everybody.
“But I’m very heartened by the response of staff, and very much recognise and acknowledge their dedication, resilience and commitment. They have been absolutely incredible over the last two years,” she said
Some 360,656 Covid-19 tests were carried out in the HSE West in the year to December 20, with 60% of them in Galway, at the airport, at NUIG, Forster Street in the city, and pop-up test centres in Tuam and Ballinasloe.
In November, some 66,809 tests were carried out at centres in Galway, Roscommon and Mayo and this rose to 72,366 when testing of outbreaks and serial testing of nursing homes and workplaces was included.
“We’ve done incredible work and have made a difference and we have kept people safe – it’s great to be able to say that. People have listened to the advice, they’ve come out and got tested, and the only thing we can be sure about Covid is you just don’t know what’s next,” she said.
Community Healthcare West stood-down school immunisations and developmental clinics last year because staff were diverted to higher priority services like rolling-out vaccinations to long-term care facilities.
Further postponements of routine clinics are expected in the coming months to support Saolta University Healthcare Group roll-out booster vaccines.
But Ms Crehan Roche said there was huge investment in services and it was a “really exciting time” to work in healthcare.
“Even now we’re looking at a fifth wave we have managed to get services back and we’ve managed to increase our services. There has been a huge investment, and it’s a really exciting time in relation to Sláintecare, in relation to supporting people and treating people within the community so people don’t need to go into hospital,” she said.
Ms Crehan Roche said that the booster vaccine provided “light at the end of the tunnel”.
“We know the boosters are working. We recently did serial testing in long-stay care facilities for older people and thankfully there were very few tests coming back positive.
“We have had huge investment in prevention to mitigate spread of infection. It remains to be seen what the learnings are from omicron. Are there new variants, and mutations?
“We just have to be led on that but I know my staff will be there and we will be all hands on deck to provide services. Our staff are incredible, including the voluntary sector, GPs and all the services that are part of the community.
“We’ll be living with some virus for quite a while yet but we’ve made incredible advances in relation to the provision of testing, in relation to vaccines and all these things are measures that will help,” she said.