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Health experts have insufficient information to establish where people get Covid-19, committee hears

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Health experts have insufficient information to establish where people are getting infected with Covid-19, an Oireachtas committee heard on Wednesday.

Prof Kirsten Schaffer, president of the Irish Society of Clinical Microbiology, said she rang public health officials to be told that they only asked what close contacts people had in the last 48 hours.

They do not ask people where they have been or where they might have acquired the infection so it was not clear if somebody acquired it at a house party or at a restaurant or any other social setting.

“I don’t have that information. The data is not there at the moment,” she said, adding this gap was impeding the development of more refined or localised interventions.

Other countries like Germany did ask those questions and had that information, the Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 Response heard.

Professor Kirsten Schaffer UCD School of Medicine and President of the Irish Society of Clinical Microbiologists addresses the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee. Photograph: Oireachtas TV
Professor Kirsten Schaffer UCD School of Medicine and President of the Irish Society of Clinical Microbiologists addresses the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee. Photograph: Oireachtas TV

Prof Schaffer was one of a number of experts addressing the committee on Wednesday.

These included Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist Dr Johan Giesecke who said “zero Covid” was not a feasible solution because you would have to do it with every country in the world.

Dr Giesecke said his country never had a herd immunity strategy but herd immunity was a “by-product” of allowing a controlled spread of the disease.

Sweden’s “soft lockdown” worked because the country trusted its people, he said, adding “people are not stupid” and would respond if told how to protect themselves.

Giving his opening address, Dr Giesecke reiterated his view that there should be a “controlled spread” among the under 60s and allow a “tolerable spread” of the virus in the over-60s.

He said schools must remain open and he pointed out that there was no difference between infections among schoolchildren in Sweden, where schools were kept open, and in neighbouring Finland which closed its schools.

Dr Giesecke added Covid-19 constituted a threat to democracy in many countries with some politicians acquiring extra powers that they might not relinquish.

He also told the committee that it was too early to compare the Covid-19 strategies of different countries. “We are only at the beginning of this epidemic,” he said.

Dr Johann Giesecke, former chief epidemiologist in Sweden addressing the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee. Photograph: Oireachtas TV
Dr Johann Giesecke, former chief epidemiologist in Sweden addressing the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee. Photograph: Oireachtas TV

Deputy Róisín Shortall (Social Democrats) asked him what should be done for people aged over 60s in nursing homes?

Dr Giesecke suggested that older people should adhere to the rules about protecting themselves against Covid-19 by keeping two metres distance from other people, washing their hands and avoid large social gatherings.

In her address to the committee, Prof Schaffer said herd immunity was a “price that would be too high”. Instead she advocated keeping community transmission low to protect the old and the vulnerable. She said older people should be especially assiduous in keeping to the public health guidelines about Covid-19.

Dr Tomás Ryan, an advocate for the zero Covid policy and an associate professor in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, said no country had succeeded in shielding the old and the vulnerable. He said South Korea and Taiwan never had a policy of shielding but had low deaths among elderly people because they had low levels of transmission anyway.

Instead, the only way of suppressing the virus is by reducing it for everyone and “then you reduce the risk for older people”.

Dr Ryan said there was scope for a citizens’ assembly on Covid-19.

Professor Sam McConkey told the committee there should be a plan for up to seven years for Covid-19. “This is not a short-term little problem that will go away in three months,” he warned.

“We needed something that is a long-term vision.”

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