Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Covid-19: New Measures: Statements
Emer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
This evening, we learned of 3,893 new Covid cases within our community. A total of 43 people with Covid-19 have, sadly, passed away in the past week. There are currently 611 people in hospital with Covid, 132 of whom are critically ill in ICUs. I ask the Minister to imagine for just one second that we could change this. Let us imagine if we were able to bring in a simple and cheap intervention that could decrease dramatically the number of people fighting for their life in ICU, and if we were brave enough to take a bold decision instead of waiting for additional information and evidence that may come to light to satisfy NPHET. The vaccine is most certainly the critical armour in our fight against Covid-19, but vitamin D can also play a role. Yet, I have never once heard the Minister talk about it and it has not even been considered by NPHET since last May.
Emerging global scientific studies show vitamin D supplements are proven to help people fight infection and recover from illness. We know there is too low a take-up of the vitamin in Ireland. Recent studies by the school of biological and health sciences at Technological University Dublin, Trinity College Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons all suggest that low vitamin D status may be associated with poorer clinical outcomes and increased mortality among those hospitalised with Covid-19. These results complement the data coming from St. James's and Connolly hospitals, where studies were conducted independently and on different patient groups. These scientific studies show that increasing vitamin D intake among the population could be a game changer during the Covid pandemic.
Why is the Minister not recommending that people take vitamin D? Why are high-dosage vitamin D supplements not being given to people presenting at PCR test centres? This simple and cheap intervention could be a mitigation measure that protects our health service at the time it most needs it. It is nine months since I asked the Minister to do this and six months since the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health recommended he take action on the use of vitamin D in the context of Covid. Let us look at the statistics. Almost half of those aged 18 to 39 in Ireland are deficient in the vitamin. More than two thirds of people over 80 years of age and two thirds of those in nursing homes are deficient. A total of 93% of members of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are deficient. Considering what we know about the vitamin's role in infection prevention and recovery, through the scientific studies, our level of deficiency does not bode well in the context of the rising Covid numbers as we move into the darker winter months.
The vaccines and other public health measures offer us a very strong line of defence against Covid-19 but vitamin D supplements can offer yet another avenue of protection against severe illness or death. NPHET, through HIQA, examined ten studies out of 909 on this issue and did not even reference them. I am no scientist but I know that is shoddy research and the conclusions are unreliable. Against the backdrop of rising cases, with queues for PCR tests and high hospitalisation numbers, surely there has never been a better time to advise the public to increase its intake of vitamin D.
Public health awareness campaigns need to be stepped up a gear, not just in regard to vitamin D but also antigen testing. We are all too aware that accessing PCR tests is especially difficult right now. I commend the Minister and the HSE on increasing the number of tests available. A total of 207,000 people were tested last week for Covid-19. That is a great achievement but it clearly is not enough. More testers, laboratory technicians and testing centres are needed. There is clear information available about antigen tests, when and when not to take them, but I constantly hear about people with symptoms relying on them. The issue is that many people who have Covid and have symptoms are showing a negative antigen test. They are walking around and socialising unaware they have the virus. It is really important that we follow the public health advice that antigen tests are not a magic bullet solution and should not be used when people have symptoms. A PCR test remains the gold standard and it is the only way to be certain whether someone has Covid. However, it is very difficult to follow this advice when PCR test appointments are so difficult to come by. That needs to be addressed.
A criticism that is constantly being levelled at the Government is that people do not have the correct information relating to antigen tests.
Perhaps it would be helpful to reiterate the information on the floor of the House today. You should do antigen tests regularly if you do not have symptoms of Covid-19 and are regularly in high-risk environments. Such environments include bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, concerts, participating in contact sports, multi-household visits and car sharing with people from other households. You should do two tests each week, with three days between each test, because leaving a few days between each test allows time for the virus to show up in your system. If you are designated a close contact, you will be prompted to register to receive free antigen testing kits. I have heard from numerous people that they received their antigen testing kits extremely quickly once they were designated a close contact. We have to give the HSE and the Minister huge credit for that. That is so vital. All the information regarding antigen testing is available on the HSE website. I would highly recommend to anyone who is unsure to take a few minutes to familiarise themselves with it because it is important information. I ask the Government to roll out an information campaign, including videos through social media, particularly TikTok and Instagram, where young people who are more likely to be in these high-risk environments are getting their information. I made the same request of the Taoiseach in the House this morning.
Our vaccine roll-out has been a huge success. However, 7% of the adult population is unvaccinated and that cohort accounts for more than half of the people being admitted to ICU. It is undeniable that it would be so beneficial for our hospitals and our healthcare workers if we encouraged that 7% of people to get vaccinated. It is often believed that those who have chosen not to get vaccinated have made their mind up and are flat-out anti-vax. I do not necessarily think that is the case. We still need to encourage people to take up their vaccinations.
We have had huge uptake throughout all of the cohorts. Yet, there is room for improvement, especially given the number of young people we are seeing in hospitals and in ICUs with Covid-19. We simply must do more to reach out to our younger cohorts. In particular, 80% of 16- to 17-year-olds are vaccinated and 20% of that age group need to hear this message. The vaccine will protect them, and it will protect our health service.
Some 50% of ICU admissions with Covid-19 are people who were born outside of Ireland. That is startling. Those working in ICU tell us that many of their unvaccinated patients originally come from a small number of countries mainly in eastern Europe. Some may have poor English language skills. It is so important that we reach out to those people. Ireland is such a diverse and inclusive community. We need to include them in the public health messaging. I welcome the measures that are being adapted, such as making Covid-19 messaging available in other languages, but it is clear that we must do more to ensure that our new Irish are receiving reliable, straightforward information about the vaccine. They might not be listening to our news. They might not be picking up on our messages. We need to do more to inform them.