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Will summer wave crash soon or is it just masking another pandemic winter?

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A medical worker takes a swab sample at a testing station, following a coronavirus outbreak, in Beijing. Photo: Thomas Peter /Reuters

A medical worker takes a swab sample at a testing station, following a coronavirus outbreak, in Beijing. Photo: Thomas Peter /Reuters

A medical worker takes a swab sample at a testing station, following a coronavirus outbreak, in Beijing. Photo: Thomas Peter /Reuters

It’s the summer wave we are hoping will crash soon. The Covid-19 comeback might not have ruined the summer but it has reappeared with its usual lack of mercy as the nation craves some respite after the winter and spring waves.

Two highly infectious forms of the virus are circulating and despite more outdoor activity the numbers getting infected are still on the rise.

What do we need to know about this surge and when is it likely to end?

Spreading faster

Omicron is back in the form of sublineages BA.4 and BA.5. They are particularly good at getting around immunity that people got from previous infections, which is why so many re-infections are being reported. Antibodies triggered by vaccination are also less effective at blocking these two than earlier strains of Omicron.  

Booster shots

Covid-19 booster shots can reboot the body’s immune defences against Covid-19.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) has so far only recommended a second booster shot for the over-65s and those who are immunocompromised.

Beyond a point around three months from getting the jab, their ability to fend of infection is believed to be very low.

However, the experts believe the first booster jab is still giving good protection for other groups, although a top-up for the wider population is expected to be recommended for autumn.

The number of patients in intensive care with Covid-19 continues to be stable and stood at 28 yesterday.

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Around one in five cases in intensive care due to Covid itself are not vaccinated. But some patients who are fully boosted are also seriously ill.

There is a strong level of protection against severe disease among those who are vaccinated or had a previous infection.

The worry is the number of over-65s who are in hospital directly due to Covid-19 and the sluggish take-up of second booster doses.

 

Hospitalisations and disruption

There were 751 patients with Covid-19 in hospital yesterday, up 30 on Monday evening, but still 14 lower than Sunday. Admissions have risen by around 30pc in the last week.

However, only around half are in hospital as a result of becoming unwell due to the virus and the rest are incidental. But a significant number of patients are also picking up the virus after admission to hospital.

There were 317 Covid-related deaths in March, 332 in April, 92 in May and nine up to mid-June.

Infection rate

The proportion of people who are testing positive after a free HSE PCR test in the last seven days is around 35.2pc.

That is up from 30.8pc in the previous week. The true level of infection is difficult to measure. The most recent June weekly figures show 10,435 new PCR positive cases were reported and another 13,059 registered after a home antigen test. There are other ways of evaluating how widespread it is through analysing wastewater.

The trend is still upwards but the hope is that it will peak soon and next week is expected to tell a lot. In Portugal, which in May was first in Europe to be hit with the current surge, there is evidence that cases have plateaued at a high rate. The numbers in hospital are as high as the original Omicron wave. So it is still unclear how intense it might be.

Staff shortages

Several business sectors are desperate for staff, including the hospitality industry. The rise in Covid and the need for staff to self-isolate is another layer of upheaval, including to airlines. The imperative remains that if people think they have symptoms they need to self-isolate until 48 hours after they have gone.

Old habits

When it comes to wearing a mask, keeping a two-metre distance and the other habits ingrained in us for so long, the trend is downwards.

The ESRI tracker on behaviour which covered early June found six in 10 people said they rarely if ever followed these behaviours and it has probably dipped further since. The summer holiday season is in full swing and people are less likely to buckle up Covid-style on their break.

Inter-county travel had risen to its highest since January last year and there was a sharp increase in household visits.

Return of face mask mandate

It emerged yesterday that contingency public health legislation is being prepared to allow for the Government to re-introduce the mandatory face mask mandate this winter if deemed necessary.

If, as speculated, this wave is a warm-up for a winter spike – with flu and other viruses thrown in – the odds are the mandate will be back, particularly for public transport. Masks work best when everyone wears them.

Covid-19 cuts

July marks a new phase for the HSE in its response to Covid-19 as it scales down contact-tracing as well as shuts more vaccination centres. Contact-tracing teams will be retained in Dublin and Cork to serve the country. A team specialising in complex cases is being stood down.

It is holding on to 15 vaccination centres nationally and there is scope for pop-up clinics. Pharmacies and some GPs will still provide access to vaccines for those who are eligible. There are also emergency plans to respond with the deployment of National Ambulance Service recruits to carrying out tests depending on how bad it gets.

Long Covid

Thankfully hospitalisations due to serious Covid-19 illness are nowhere like the worst waves of the pandemic but the great unknown is what the fallout in terms of long Covid will be.

Repeated waves of infection with a virus is concerning. What is it doing to the health of the population? For most the infection passes and they are fine but many young people in particular are left with lingering symptoms for weeks including fatigue.

The exact number of people affected by long Covid remains unknown but studies say 10-20pc of Covid patients experience lingering symptoms for weeks or months following infection. But the news is not all grim. New-generation vaccines are being developed and these could be here in late autumn.


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