It has emerged that two in three of coronavirus deaths in Ireland have taken place in residential homes at a rate significantly higher than anywhere else in the world.
Health officials in Dublin finally released figures this week which confirmed a healthcare disaster is taking place in Ireland’s nursing homes. It was described as a “catastrophe” by Jack Lambert, a professor of infectious diseases at the Mater Hospital in Dublin.
As of Thursday, a total of 444 people in Ireland had tragically died from the virus, and 290 of those people lived in residential facilities, including 245 people who lived in nursing homes.
There have been 155 outbreaks of the coronavirus in nursing homes across the country, according to the Health Service Executive (HSE). Additionally, it has been diagnosed in 58 residential institutions and 23 long-stay units in hospitals.
Legal experts have warned the Dublin government is likely to face lawsuits over its delay in taking action, and charges of criminal negligence could yet be brought against senior health officials. At least one nursing home has said they were ordered by the Health Department not to release information about the status of the disease at their facility.
Professor Lambert said that every under-utilized Irish healthcare worker should be sent to “every single nursing home in Ireland” to deal with the threat facing nursing homes.
He said he expected that up to half of the nursing homes in Ireland could have clusters of the virus and he called for under-utilized staff to visit homes around the country and assess the situation.
He said that nursing homes needed to be a “priority” and that preparations should have been in place weeks ago to mitigate the risk of the virus reaching residential homes across the country.
The number of clusters in residential homes has grown from around 20 in mid-March to over 200 now, according to Mr Lambert.
Speaking on RTE radio, Lambert said that there was no holistic government approach to nursing homes and individual homes were responsible for making their own plans instead.
He condemned the government’s expectation that nursing homes would source their own protective equipment, conduct their own tests and organise training.
Hundreds of nursing home patients have been denied potentially life-saving intensive care on account of their age, and offered hopsice-type palliative treatment instead.
Others have been transferred to and from hospitals in a chaotic manner, many without receiving test results. This failure is likely to have increased the spread of the disease, but the true cause of deaths in some cases have not been reported, an ‘oversight’ which health officials have been very reluctant to correct.
In the space of just two week, fifteen people are understood to have died from suspected coronavirus at a Dublin nursing home, the state-run St Mary’s hospital in the Phoenix Park, with four elderly people all dying on the same day last week.
One nurse who was called in to a Dublin home described a scene of devastation, with residents dying in rapid succession. “There are no words to describe the situation in the homes,” said Caitriona Ryan.
“It is only a matter of time before all of the residents get it and then it will be survival of the fittest due to the limited supplies, staffing and equipment,” she said.
“Keep the residents in homes in your prayers over the next few weeks and keep those candles lighting. This battle is only just beginning.”
Another nurse said staff are “overwhelmed” by outbreaks. She called for health officials to urgently supply oxygen in to all of these homes.
“This is a respiratory disease that affects your breathing and patients struggling with it need oxygen. Nobody is talking about what is happening in our nursing homes.”
Paddy Connolly, the chief executive of Age Action Ireland also warned of a “tragedy unfolding” as a result of coronavirus in large disability care institutions, where up to 2,900 people are living, many of them elderly. Nine patients died at the Maryborough Centre, an old-age facility in Portlaoise over the Easter weekend, eight of whom tested positive for coronavirus.
Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley said he understood many of those who died in Portlaoise had already tested positive. He demanded more be done to protect patients and staff.
“The deaths of over one-third of the patients last weekend have shocked people,” he said. “It is also very traumatic for the staff and the families of the deceased.”
Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty told the Dublin parliament that residential homes had been given dangerously bad advice by health officials, particularly on visitor restrictions.
Mr Doherty, who was standing in for Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, herself recovering after a serious illness due to the coronavius, said: “I think it’s important that there is an acceptance here today that the decision of the Department of Health in this regard has proven to be the wrong one. And I think we need to have full clarity in relation to exactly what is happening within our care home settings and nursing home settings,” said Doherty.
Questions also remain unanswered over the government’s refusal to encourage the use of masks. Every day, Ireland falls further behind between those countries which have embraced the measure, those who have made it compulsory are beginning to return to normalcy.
Incredibly, health officials in Dublin have refused to support a mask policy for healthcare workers, despite a request to do so this week by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
A continuing failure to deliver protection equipment for healthcare workers is reflected in figures that show that they make up over a quarter of the positive cases for the virus tested in Ireland, believed to be the highest rate of infection for healthcare workers in Europe.
An estimated one third of healthcare facilities are still awaiting supplies of protective equipment.
The government has refused to release figures for he number of healthcare workers who have died, but a number have been named informally, including most recently two employees (pictured) at St Luke’s Hospital in County Kilkenny. Jim Kenny, 49, and Catherine Hickey, 51, passed away within 24 hours of each other.
Colleagues held a vigil and lit a candle in their own homes on Wednesday night to mark the loss of their friends. Colleagues described Catherine as “a true lady who will never be forgotten”.
One staff member said on Facebook: “Jim we will miss your kind nature and your fun sense of humour. You touched the hearts of everyone that you met, you really were one in a million.”
The daily number of officially reported deaths in the 26 Counties reached 44 on Friday, the highest number of virus-related deaths since the outbreak began. Rest in peace.