Wednesday, 20 May 2020
Department of Health
741. To ask the Minister for Health if he is in the process of setting up a taskforce of scientists and industrial and health experts to deal specifically with planning for the 24-hour turnaround for tracking, tracing and isolation of contacts (details supplied). [6206/20]
A robust process of testing, isolation and contact tracing is central to Ireland’s public health strategy for containing and slowing the spread of COVID-19, as advocated by the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Control. A testing and tracing process with sufficient capacity and quick turnaround is one of a number of core criteria in determining when it is safe for countries to reduce restrictive public health measures.
The HSE, together with the Department of Health and other bodies, has worked hard in the last two months to develop Ireland’s testing and tracing process, to expand capacity and to reduce turnaround times.
A designated team, led by a senior manager reporting directly to the CEO, has been established in the HSE to oversee the development, management and operation of Ireland’s testing and contact tracing process. This includes responsibility for the scaling up of capacity and the speeding up of turnaround times with a clear focus on achieving ambitious targets and continuous improvement. On 14 May the HSE launched its Roadmap for testing and tracing with clear targets and arrange of actions to achieve these targets.
The work of the HSE on testing and contact tracing is informed by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). The NPHET oversees and will continue to provide national direction, guidance, support and expert advice on the development and implementation of Ireland’s strategy to contain COVID-19.
Significant progress has been made over the last two months. 47 community testing centres have been established; over 40 laboratories are processing tests; 9 new contact tracing centres have been set up and some 1,700 public servants have been trained in contact tracing to support the work of public health departments. A quick testing referral pathway for GPs is in place, and new IT systems have been developed or modified.
Ireland's testing strategy has evolved as our testing capacity has grown. A number of changes have been made to the case definition so that anyone presenting with acute respiratory infection comprising the sudden onset of least one of the following symptoms (cough, fever, shortness of breath) can be referred for testing. A mass testing programme across nursing homes, mental health and disability facilities is nearing completion, and, as of this week, all close contacts of someone with Covid-19 will be automatically referred for testing. Our strategy is to target testing at those groups or populations where the virus is most likely to be and where it will do most harm.
The HSE advise that from this week it has the capacity to test 15,000 people a day. Turnaround times have continued to improve and the HSE advise that it is on target to complete the testing process from referral to the completion of contact tracing within 3 days or less in 90% cases.
It is important to recognise these systems and capacity have been developed from a standing start and to recognise the tremendous work which has gone in to getting us to the point we are now at. It is also important to recognise the context in which this is happening: Ireland is already testing at a higher rate than most countries and our targets are ambitious. Data published on 12 May shows Ireland ranks 4th highest out of 25 EU+UK countries in terms of tests completed as a percentage of the overall population.
The HSE continues to work intensively to further develop processes and turnaround times across the testing and tracing pathway and a range of further improvements will be rolled out in the coming weeks.