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Thousands of close contacts will not be notified by HSE tracers and will have to seek own coronavirus test due to ‘unprecedented pressure’

Thousands of close contacts of confirmed cases will not be contacted by the HSE contact tracers and notified to seek a test due to “unprecedented pressures” on the contact tracing system.

Due to “high numbers” of positive cases from last Friday, Saturday and Sunday (October 18 to 20), those who were notified of a positive coronavirus test result in those days will be asked to get in touch with their close contacts themselves.

The people who tested positive will receive a text message which can be forwarded on to their close contacts, which advises the people who were in contact with the case to restrict their movements and to contact their GP for a test.

Normally, once a person tests positive for coronavirus, they receive a call from contact tracers who ask for their close contacts. The HSE contact tracers then notify the close contacts, schedule their test and tell them that they should restrict movements.

However, the person who received a positive test result over last Friday, Saturday and Sunday will now have to notify their close contacts themselves due to “high numbers” testing positive over the weekend.

The text message will be a replacement of the phone call and the HSE is making calls “as usual” to people who tested positive from Monday October 19 onwards to “focus on achieving the shortest possible turnaround time to alert all close contacts from this week”.

The HSE said that this is a one-off measure and that over the past 13 days there has been an average of 1,080 positive cases per day, which has led to “unprecedented pressures” on contact tracers.

“This one-off temporary measure is being implemented in consultation with GPs, to ensure those affected are tested as quickly as possible,” said a HSE spokesperson.

They said that this measure will ensure close contact receive information “as quickly as possible” and support contact tracers who are working under pressure.

“This step is also to support our contact tracing teams who continue working under significant pressure due to the increasing positivity rate at this point in the pandemic.”

The HSE spokesperson said that at the height of demand in April, 5,200 calls were made in one day, whereas over 1,000 positive cases have been exceeded twice this month so far, which has led to “unprecedented pressures” on contact tracing teams.

The HSE’s Chief Clinical Officer, Dr Colm Henry said that the health service is “confident” that people can identify their own contacts and will identify them as soon as possible.

“We know that people would prefer a personal call at what can be a worrying time and we would prefer to make those calls and to continue to do that going into the future,” he said.

“For this temporary measure, we should reiterate that the contact tracing process has always been led by the information given to us by the people we are calling, so we are confident that the people involved will be able to identify their own contacts and will contact them as soon as possible.”

The HSE expects to be bringing in 60 to 70 new contact tracers every week over the coming period with a view to hire 800 initially and then review the need for further staff.
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Health David Cullinane TD said that the system is “overwhelmed” as a result of “underinvestment.”

“The system is overwhelmed and this is a direct result of rising cases and underinvestment. It is extremely concerning.

“There are constant reports coming from tracers about staff being overworked and a lack of training. Such reports have been met by denial from government,” he said.

He said that this is a “serious situation”.

“The time for talking and for promises by the Minister for Health is over. This is a serious situation that has happened on his watch,” Deputy Cullinane added.

By Gabija Gataveckaite