Contact tracing system 'understaffed and overwhelmed'

The former director-general of the Health Service Executive (HSE) has said issues with the corona...
Jack Quann
Jack Quann

12.13 21 Oct 2020

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Contact tracing system 'unders...

Contact tracing system 'understaffed and overwhelmed'

Jack Quann
Jack Quann

12.13 21 Oct 2020

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The former director-general of the Health Service Executive (HSE) has said issues with the coronavirus contact tracing system are two-fold.

Tony O'Brien told The Pat Kenny Show it is a mixture of understaffing and an overwhelming workload.

It comes as thousands of people will be asked to do their own contact tracing due to increased strain on the State system.


Around 2,500 people who tested positive over the weekend will today receive a second text message from the HSE.

They will be asked to forward the information on to anyone they were in close contact with in the days leading up to their diagnosis.

Mr O'Brien explained: "You can either see this an understaffing issue or an overwhelming issue, and I think probably the truth lies somewhere in-between.

"But it's also the case that when you get to a certain level of new cases every day, the ability of the system to ramp up and deal with that in the speedy way that we'd all like it to be done is going to be extremely challenged.

"And I would take the view that whilst everybody is different, certainly if I was to receive a positive COVID test, my first port of call I think would be to contact everyone I knew I'd been in contact with in the relevant period myself.

"So at some point we do have to balance individual responsibility and what the State can do.

"Because we're now going into level five we're doing that because, effectively, COVID is currently out of control - and any system is capable of being overwhelmed in a situation like that unfortunately".


But he said the one positive about all this is the transparency.

"What is positive, and I think we should be acknowledging this, is that they've been very open and transparent about the situation that's now unfolded.

"They haven't tried to hide this; they've come out hands up - and they entered into discussions with General Practitioners, they're communicating with all the individuals involved.

"We've a simple choice at this precise moment: yeah we'd like it to be better but we are where we are.

"And everyone involved needs to do their own little bit to overcome this particular problem, while the people currently in charge of the health system are indeed of the process of recruiting more contact tracers.

"And don't forget - one of the ways they dealt with this before was to redeploy lots of staff from other services which were badly needed.

covid-19 alert File photo of former HSE director-general Tony O'Brien. Picture by: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

"And this time around what they're trying to do is keep all those other services operating.

"Unfortunately this wave has hit them quite hard".

"They've done tremendously well on the testing... the problem is that far more of those tests are now coming up positive as a percentage, and that then leads into this contact tracing issue".

It comes after the former head of the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP) Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail told Newstalk that the State contact tracing system had "essentially collapsed."

"As a GP on the frontline, and I've been speaking to GPs across the country, most people are able to get a test on the same day or within 24 hours.

"Most people are getting a result within two days, but contact tracing has essentially collapsed.

"We just don't have the capacity to contact trace 1,000 people every single day in Ireland", he said.

'We're detecting a lot more people'

While Dr Sarah Doyle, a consultant in public health with the HSE, said they are doing the best they can.

"It has been extremely busy for me and for all my colleagues in public health - but also actually for other colleagues across the HSE".

"We are really doing our best to rise to this challenge and to ensure that we can respond as best we can to this pandemic to try and get people to as normal a life as we can get them."

"What this really is it's about the fact that we're in a pandemic and that this virus is very contagious and it is spreading now within the community.

"The other aspect in the large volume of cases is actually that we are better now at detecting cases than we were in the spring.

"So we're detecting a lot more people who are asymptomatic or don't have symptoms, and also maybe young people who are mildly symptomatic.

"It sounds sort of odd but that's actually a good thing.

"It's a good thing that we are detecting cases and we're letting people know that 'Look you have COVID-19 and now you need to isolate'.

"So people are now getting a text message straight up and I know that's a little bit unusual, it's not what's done in normal times but is the immediate response to say 'Look, you have COVID-19 now and you need to isolate'".

"Our response at the different phases of this, they change depending on the nature of the infection".

She said people should take a moment to think, don't panic and go through their close contacts.

Contact tracing system 'understaffed and overwhelmed'

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Main image: A lab technician holding a test tube that contains blood sample from a patient.
The hospital is currently carrying out between 400-500 tests a day for suspected cases of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, Coronavirus testing are to patients free of charge in the Netherlands. (Photo by Robin Utrecht / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

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