The rapidly spreading UK variant of Covid-19 is feared to be behind a significant infection surge in Co Mayo.
The latest figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, released last Thursday, show that one in every 50 people in Belmullet had contracted Covid-19 over the previous 14-day period.
Health chiefs in the county believe the high influx of returning emigrants for Christmas from the UK is behind the spike in cases.
Belmullet has the highest individual incidence rate in any local electoral area in the State, with 266 positive cases in a population of 12,600, or 2,111.0 cases per 100,000.
Local GP Dr Keith Swanick said that while the situation in Belmullet appears to be easing in terms of transmission, he believes there are difficult times ahead.
In recent days, Dr Swanick has called for the Government to introduce local curfews for hotspot areas like Belmullet, but he says the seriousness of the situation has “landed” locally.
“Calling for a curfew is almost past tense now that the figures have plateaued, thankfully,” he said. “But it has been a challenging period for the town.
“We have to crush the transmission of this virus. It is about fostering that inner strength in the community, and I know it’s there.
“The seriousness of this has landed and people will come together, I have no doubt.
“But introducing local curfews in hotspot areas is something the Government should consider in the future.
“We don’t know what this South African variant is going to bring. The situation here is that Covid-19 is affecting all cohorts of society.
“People diagnosed a week ago are now becoming ill. Young people are getting very sick with this too.
“All we want to do as medical professionals is preserve life. There is no other agenda in this. All we want is to keep people safe.”
Dr Swanick also called for the Government to offer priority vaccination for frontline healthcare workers in areas in the grip of a severe surge.
“If frontline workers go down with illness, an already serious situation gets even worse,” he said.
On Friday, in an unusual move, the HSE, An Garda Síochána, and Mayo County Council issued a joint statement urging people to follow the public health advice given the significant and sustained increase in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Mayo.
They said the recent rise in figures for those contracting the virus in the county was “extremely concerning”.
Dr Breda Smyth, HSE director of public health in the west, described Mayo’s infection rate as “really worrying”.
She said the 14-day incidence had increased dramatically, particularly in Ballyhaunis, Ballina, Belmullet, Castlebar, and Claremorris.
“In the two weeks between December 21 and January 3, there were 862 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Mayo,” said Dr Smyth.
“When we look more closely at the data, we can see a steep increase in the number of confirmed cases in the county since December 26.”
Tony Canavan, CEO of the Saolta Group, which has responsibility for the hospitals in the west and north-west, said they had witnessed “a very significant increase in the number of patients hospitalised with Covid-19 in Mayo University Hospital”.