Nursing homes in Ireland have not been left isolated during the coronavirus crisis, a senior health official has insisted.
Dr Kathleen MacLellan challenged claims made by representative body Nursing Homes Ireland, which has criticised the level of state support offered to the sector, particularly in the early stages of the outbreak.
Dr MacLellan, who chairs the National Public Health Emergency Team’s Vulnerable People Subgroup, told the daily NPHET briefing: “I think it’s very difficult to see how Nursing Homes Ireland can see themselves isolated from the state.
“There’s clear and significant ongoing engagement with Nursing Homes Ireland in what I would say has been a very problem-solving way – every time an issue has come up, we have worked with Nursing Homes Ireland to try to resolve that.”
The coronavirus death toll in Ireland rose to 1,639 on Thursday after a further nine deaths were announced.
About 62% of Covid-19 deaths in the outbreak have occurred in care homes.
Dr MacLellan, who is an assistant secretary in the Department of Health, said a significant number of healthcare workers had been tasked to support the homes and 23 separate Covid-19 response teams had been set up to work with the sector.
“So it’s very difficult to see how nursing homes could feel that they were isolated,” she added.
“But I wouldn’t take away from the challenges that we’ve had. It’s been a very difficult time. It’s been a difficult time for staff. It’s been a difficult time for relatives, and obviously it’s been a difficult time for residents.”
Department of Health COVID-19 Press Briefing https://t.co/4NtFfcJO6M— Department of Health (@roinnslainte) May 28, 2020
Dr MacLellan said it was important that lessons were learned by everyone involved in tackling the virus in care homes ahead of potential further outbreaks in the months ahead.
“This is a virus that’s going to be with us for the next six to 18 months,” she said.
“So while we can see that we have made significant progress in our nursing homes, and we’re starting to see the closing of (infection) clusters, we are going to see different new outbreaks coming up over the next six to 18 months.
“So it’s really important that we’re sure that our system is as protected as it can be and that we are as robust as possible.”
There were 46 new confirmed cases of the disease in Ireland also announced on Thursday, taking the total to 24,841 since the outbreak began.
Earlier in the day, HSE chief executive Paul Reid said improvements would be required in the oversight of the nursing home sector.
“My own reflections are, there are obvious gaps in clarity regarding the responsibility and overall governance of private nursing homes in particular,” he said.
A brief weekly update to staff in the HSE on Measuring the impact of #COVID19, Testing & Tracing, How we safely get back to Non Covid Services and Nursing Homes. And again a special thanks to all staff and healthcare workers. @HSELive pic.twitter.com/BtLZyOMZ8K— Paul Reid (@paulreiddublin) May 28, 2020
“I think any reflection at this point in time can say it is something to be looked at and is a consideration for policymakers and the HSE.
“Residents in these locations are often frail and vulnerable, and I will continuously ensure the HSE are wide open to any learnings that emerge over the next while as we are still very much living with this virus.”
On a separate issue, Mr Reid acknowledged the target of having 90% of tests for Covid-19 turned around in three days – from test referral to completion of contact tracing – has not been met, and it is currently at 83%.
“We are obviously dealing with much more complex cases now, they can take longer,” he said.
Later, during the daily NPHET briefing, Professor Philip Nolan, who leads a team modelling Covid-19 trends in Ireland, said all the main indicators of the virus’s prevalence were either “stable or declining”.
He went on to describe the indicators as “astonishingly stable”.
There is no guarantee an effective vaccine which fulfils all the criteria of conferring immunity, being safe and being manufactured at a mass scale for a population... there is no guarantee that will happenHSE's chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry
Professor Nolan said Ireland’s reproduction number – the number of people an infected person infects – was currently estimated to be 0.5.
“ICU and hospital admissions and number of deaths per day continue to decline,” he said.
“The number of cases per day remains stable. Next week we will see figures that reflect the impact of Phase 1 measures on key disease spread indicators.
“It is our hope that the R-number will remain below one and our progress is preserved.”
Elsewhere on Thursday, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe vowed to act to ensure mothers returning from maternity leave “are treated fairly” under the wage subsidy scheme.
The Covid-19 Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) pays up to 410 euro per week to an employee of a business that has lost more than 25% of its turnover, on the condition that employers keep those workers on their books.
However, due to an anomaly, women who are returning from unpaid maternity leave and were not on their company’s payroll in January and February are unable to access the subsidy.
Mr Donohoe said he will bring a proposal to Cabinet on Friday to resolve the anomaly.
He told the Dail he has been working with the Revenue Commissioners to ensure everyone is treated equally.
“I believe we have now found a way to ensure mothers who were on a maternity leave scheme and who are coming back to work can be treated equally to anyone who is on the temporary wage subsidy scheme,” he said
Meanwhile, the HSE’s chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry played down hopes of an effective vaccine being available this year, if at all.
“There is no guarantee an effective vaccine which fulfils all the criteria of conferring immunity, being safe and being manufactured at a mass scale for a population… there is no guarantee that will happen,” he said.