Donegal is bracing itself for a further surge in Covid-19 cases – as two towns in the county grapple with infection rates far higher than the national average.
Outdoor service in the Inishowen Peninsula was a washout on Sunday evening following thunderstorms. The old adage “lightning never strikes twice” has once again been proven untrue as this isn’t the first time Buncrana has had the highest rate of Covid in the country.
Billboards are encouraging people to wine and dine in the North, and doctors say some cases have been linked to cross-Border travel. A local pharmacist has also warned that the race to get younger people vaccinated is off to a false start, after he was forced to suspend online bookings due to a lack of supply.
The latest Covid data released by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre shows that infection is highest in the 19 to 24 age group.
As of June 28, Buncrana had a 14-day incidence rate of 608.1 per 100,000. Carndonagh, just 20 minutes away, had the third highest rate of infection at 489.3.
Fergus Brennan, CEO of Brennan’s Pharmacies, said the Buncrana branch has been hit with “an unprecedented demand for vaccines” by younger people. The problem is, he only has five Janssen jabs in stock – and he has no idea when he will get the supply to meet the demand.
“Since June 21, we have been vaccinating people over-50. Then the Health Minister announced on Friday that pharmacies would be vaccinating the younger cohort (18 to 34). We are delighted to help, but this announcement was made without having any pre-consultation with us,” Mr Brennan told the Irish Independent.
“This has caused a lot of untold stress as expectations are high. The uptake for the over-50s was significant for us and we only have a small number of vaccines left.
“We’ve an online booking system and to be fair on people, we had to temporarily close that on Friday evening as we had hundreds of names come in. We have no stock of the vaccine and no clarity on vaccine delivery, except what I’ve heard in the media. We can’t give people any commitments at the moment. We now find ourselves in the eye of the storm.”
Mr Brennan said the people of Buncrana have been doing “their very best” to look after each other by observing the rules carefully.
The town’s close proximity to Derry, which currently has some of Northern Ireland’s highest Covid rates, may be a contributing factor.
“We’ve seen a steep spike in the last two to three weeks, and the last week in particular has been quite dramatic,” said Dr Paul Grant of Buncrana Medical Centre.
“Around one in five are coming back positive, and that alone is worrying.”
Fortunately, Dr Grant said most are presenting with “very minor symptoms.”
“They’re almost hay fever-like. But this creates problems too as some people might not present for testing and continue to go to work.
“I’ve had a couple of cases where people said they had gathered outdoors or were outdoor dining, and anecdotally we’re hearing that people are picking it up outdoors. There has been a lot of cross-Border activity too, but that’s a natural thing in Buncrana and it’s the way it’s always been. That’s something we’re well used to over the last 15 months and it has been a factor all along.”
Up until July 1, the seven-day incidence rate in Derry and Strabane was 298.8 cases per 100,000.
Despite the surge in cases, hospital admissions remain relatively low.
Dr Denis McCauley of Millbrae surgery in Carndonagh said increased positivity rates in the North are being reflected in Donegal, and this is likely to continue.
“Inishowen is part of the same economic and social area as Derry, the Border is irrelevant,” he said.
“There’s normal social mixing between the two, but this is being heightened by the fact there are conflicting restrictions on either side.
“The background issue is that the incidence in Northern Ireland has gone from half the rate of the Republic, to double the rate.
“If there’s an outbreak in Derry, it will impact north Donegal. It’s not just Carndonagh and Buncrana, it’s Inishowen in general. The positivity rate at one of the walk-in testing centres is about 11.7pc.
“It’s important that people continue to get vaccinated and go for testing.
"Just because it’s not causing you much harm, doesn’t mean it’s not going to make another person very sick.”
Northern Ireland recorded its first Covid-related death in nearly a month after a 39-year-old woman died last week. The Republic also recorded its highest number of cases in over a month on Friday.
Dr Anthony Breslin, the HSE’s Director of Public Health for Donegal, confirmed the Delta variant has been detected in the county.
“The numbers are increasing unfortunately, particularly in parts of Inishowen and other border areas of east Donegal,” he told Highland Radio.
“There’s a lot of virus around. People are coming in contact with the virus and are not following advice. On top of that, you have Delta in Donegal.”
Dr Breslin urged people to continue to comply with public health advice. “I’m not saying don’t do things. Whatever you do, do it safely. Protect yourself and that will have a knock-on effect for the people around you.”
Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland