An immunology expert has called for all healthcare and nursing home workers to be tested for COVID-19 every two to three weeks - saying it’s a ‘no-brainer’ to help limit transmission of the virus.
Dr Tomas Ryan, Assistant Professor at the school of biochemistry and immunology at Trinity College Dublin, says international studies have shown that mass testing of health workers is the ‘best investment in testing’ a country can make.
Latest figures show that 7,842 of the confirmed coronavirus cases here are associated with healthcare workers - nearly 30% of the total.
Speaking on The Pat Kenny Show, Dr Ryan said that’s an ‘extraordinarily high’ number.
He said: “There have been some very disturbing studies coming out from the UK showing that between 3% and 5% of all healthcare workers in England have the virus… and 50% of those people are totally asymptomatic.
“Healthcare workers are spreading the virus in our hospitals… they’re spreading it to other healthcare workers, and they’re spreading it to patients. Then patients are leaving hospital and spreading it to other people.
“We absolutely need to be testing every healthcare worker - and I would say every nursing home or care worker - every two to three weeks, regardless of whether they have symptoms or whether they’ve had contact with someone who has had symptoms.
“If you do routine testing of all healthcare workers or people in these high-risk scenarios, you reduce transmission in the overall population by 30% - it’s a no-brainer: we should just do it, but we’re not doing it.”
Dr Ryan also addressed the high rate of COVID-19 clusters in nursing homes - saying it’s been one of the “tragedies” of the pandemic in this country.
He said that Ireland is not unique in Europe in having experienced such problems in nursing homes, but explained that other countries - particularly in Asia - took quick action to deal with the issue, including instructing staff to wear face masks at all times.
He told Pat: “What I do think is that the State - NPHET - should have taken consolidated, preempted action in adequately instructing and advising nursing homes.
“I think that visitor restrictions should have been put in place in early March in a very clear manner for all nursing homes - I think that would have made a huge amount of difference, as well as staff education and masks.
“We should have stopped all visitors to nursing homes on February 29th, when the first case came into Ireland.”
Nursing Homes Ireland stopped visits in their private nursing homes in early March - but Dr Ryan suggested that seems to have been ‘contradicted’ by NPHET shortly after.
Dr Ryan said it was ‘bizarre’ for health officials to suggest visitors did not bring cases of the virus into nursing homes.
He also observed: “Sometimes I think NPHET and indeed the Department of Health underestimate how scientifically-literate a population we currently have in Ireland.
“Everybody is very well-informed on the basic biology of COVID-19. We know it spreads pre-symptomatically - we’ve known that from March.”
His comments come as the Dáil COVID committee today hears from representatives from the sector about the situation in nursing homes.