Care homes in crisis

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The Dublin government is being urged to come clean about the situation in the South’s nursing homes after it was revealed that four deaths have taken place in just one out of the dozens of care homes contaminated by the coronavirus.

It has been revealed that almost 100 staff members and residents in one nursing home have tested positive, but numbers for others are unknown.

“The situation is very, very serious,” said Fianna Fáil’s spokesman for health Stephen Donnelly. “The nursing homes can’t get the staff that they need. They can’t get their hands on personal protective equipment either. They are getting very, very small amounts and it is not enough.”

Minister for Health Simon Harris has said that he is still trying to get a handle on the situation in care homes. It is “a big public health issue that we have to get right”, he said.

However, any change in policy may already be too late for scores of elderly residents exposed to the virus before hygiene and distancing protocols were put in place.

Three weeks ago, when the infections leading to the current surge in deaths were taking place, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan insisted it was “too soon” and “unnecessary” to impose restrictions on visits to nursing homes and hospitals.

In a briefing this week, Holohan refused to directly answer a question on the scale of the deaths. Details of almost 30 ‘clusters’ in care homes remain closely guarded. However, the median age of those who have died in the 26 Counties is now 92 years of age, indicating that nursing homes are likely the primary contributor to the death toll.

The situation has become clouded by the fact that testing has slowed considerably. Both the Dublin and London governments have blamed an interruption in the testing system on a shortage of a chemical used to carry out the tests. The importance to the authorities of testing as a strategy has also see-sawed.

Meanwhile, the lack of masks and other personal protection equipment (PPE) remains unaddressed across healthcare institutions in Ireland. Part of a recent consignment which was recently distributed in the 26 Counties was described as “not fit for purpose” and “unusable”.

Sinn Féin has called for domestic production of test kits and PPE.

“The HSE and medical professionals are doing sterling work to try to stop the spread and treat people as well as they can,” said party spokesperson Louise O’Reilly.

“But it is now paramount to the safety of our nursing home staff and to our loved ones living in their care that all staff working in nursing homes are now provided with the necessary PPE.

“PPE is as important to those working in our nursing homes and to home help personnel as it is to those working in our healthcare services.

“Those working on the frontline taking care of our loved ones must have the adequate equipment to protect themselves from infection and to help lessen the chance of the virus being spread further.

“Many elderly people at home do not want to let anyone into their houses. They are normally visited by home help personnel but they are very anxious now.

“They need these services. That is why it is absolutely vital that PPE is provided to home help workers to put people’s minds at ease.”

Temporary facilities continue to be developed to house the sick and dying, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this week launching an “isolation facility” at the Citywest conference centre in Dublin.

Smiling incongruously, he played down concerns over shortages. He told the media that the current delay in testing was a ‘pinch point’, and there would be others.

“While we might overcome one problem, another one will probably come along after that,” he said. “The current major cause of delay is the shortage of reagents, we would expect to have more reagents probably next week. But then there may become a shortage of something else.”

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