Ireland is to conduct 100,000 coronavirus tests a week for at least six months to help experts track infection rates as lockdown measures are relaxed.
Staff and residents in all long-term residential care settings in the Republic are to be prioritised for testing in the coming 10 days amid ongoing concern about infection clusters.
A survey of mortality rates among residents in the facilities, which include nursing homes and mental health and disability services, is to be conducted this weekend to give health authorities a fuller picture of Covid-19’s impact.
The moves were agreed by the National Public Health Emergency Team (HPHET) on Friday as notification of a further 44 deaths was announced, bring the total in Ireland since the outbreak began to 530.
Another 709 positive cases were confirmed by lab tests, taking the total to 13,980.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said it was important that the ramped-up testing regime delivered results quickly, as that was key to monitoring the spread of the disease.
Dr Holohan told NPHET’s daily media briefing: “If we move into a situation where we’re lifting restrictions because we’re satisfied that the disease in terms of its spread in the community is at a very low level we have to be in a position to catch that if there is to be an increase in cases occurring in the community as quickly as possible.
“We cannot have anything other than real time turnaround in terms of those test results.”
The current lockdown in Ireland, which prevents people from leaving home in all but limited circumstances, is due to expire on May 5.
The Government has made clear that if the measures are relaxed after that date, any changes will be very gradual.
Earlier on Friday, the HSE said there had been 335 outbreaks of Covid-19 in long term residential care homes – 186 outbreaks were in private centres, and 112 were at HSE providers.
A total of 196 (or 59%) of outbreaks of Covid-19 are in nursing homes.
An outbreak is recorded in instances of one or more cases of coronavirus. A cluster is where there are two or more cases.
There have been 261 clusters in residential care settings, 166 of which are in nursing homes.
St Mary’s Hospital in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, a HSE facility for older people, has registered 11 coronavirus-linked deaths in two weeks.
Cocooning is a way of protecting the people in our communities that are most at risk of serious illness. Everyone over 70 years of age or with a serious medical condition should stay home. â£â£— HSE Ireland (@HSELive) April 15, 2020
Find out more about cocooning here: https://t.co/ksgUU5wMA9#COVID19 #coronavirus â£â£ pic.twitter.com/gNS8KPJZNM
In Co Laois, Maryborough Centre for Psychiatry of Old Age in Portlaoise recorded eight Covid-19 related deaths last weekend.
Officials insist tackling the disease in residential setting is now the main priority.
Dr Colm Henry, the HSE’s chief clinical officer, said concerned relatives should not be thinking about removing residents from care settings.
“The best place for them is to stay there, it’s the safest place,” he said.
“Once people are brought out of there not only will they not receive the same care for which they entered the nursing home in the first place, secondly they’re exposed to a risk of transmission in the community which is a very real risk.”
On Friday, the HSE said a Covid-19 contact tracing app is still being tested but may become available next month, when the current restrictions may start to be eased.
The latest modelling suggests Covid-19 has reached a plateau in Ireland, with social distancing restrictions having significantly limited the impact of the disease on the country.
Health Minister Simon Harris said there was a need to focus on residential settings. “We are making very good progress as a country but we need to redouble our efforts in relation to residential settings and sadly we know this vicious, dangerous virus is having a particularly devastating impact on older people with underlying health conditions,” he told RTE radio.
Mr Harris said while the Irish people have done great work to flatten the infection curve, any lifting of restrictions after May 5 would only be done slowly.
“For every person infected in Ireland, they are now infecting less than one new person,” he said.
“That is incredible progress.
“When we started this journey, that figure was at 4.7 and every infected person was infecting five more people and then another five people.”
He added: “The lifting of restrictions is going to be complex, delicate and there is going to be a degree of trial and error.
“We will be grounded in everything we do by public health advice.
“It is clear from the model that if you just lift the restrictions, this curve will shoot right back up and we are not going to do that and erase the progress that people have made.
“We would like to put in place a gradual easing of some of the restrictions but I have to be blunt and honest with people, that does not mean going back to life as we knew it in the short term.
“It will involve social distancing and keeping some of the public health measures in place for a period of time.”