In what seems like just a few short weeks, Cork has gone from reporting one of the lowest incidence rates of new Covid-19 cases in the country, to one of the highest, with rising numbers of people with the virus also requiring hospital care.
A breakdown of data, published in recent days, which details the incidence of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 population in every single local electoral area (LEAs) in the country shows that in the 14-day period to October 12, the incidence of the virus had increased in every LEA in Cork when compared with the previous week.
In some cases the incidence was significantly higher than the national average.
Such was the case in Cork South Central where the incidence stood at 566.4 per 100,000 people, more than three times the national figure of 177.2.
Dr Nuala O’Connor, Covid-19 lead at the Irish College of General Practitioners and a Cork GP, said that GPs here are seeing a significant increase in the volume of people contacting them requesting tests for Covid-19 or with questions about the virus.
“The volume of patients has been increasing since September and the number of people we are sending for Covid tests has been increasing,” she said.
Dr O’ Connor also pointed out that the overall incidence of Covid-19 in Cork is now higher than the national average.
“What’s happened in Cork is we’ve gone from being a very low Covid area to actually being a high Covid area. We’ve seen that then reflected in that the Covid ward in Cork University Hospital (CUH) has been reopened, having been shut for six months.”
Dr O’Connor also noted that the intensive care unit at the hospital has been busy, with both non-Covid and Covid care.
“What will happen as hospitals get busier is that scheduled care will have to be postponed... as there won’t be the intensive care bed there for them,” she said.
The HSE’s Daily Operations Updates, which provide details into Covid-19 hospitalisations, show a different picture this month than they did last month.
On October 15, they showed that 28 people with Covid-19 were receiving care across Cork University Hospital (CUH) and the Mercy University Hospital (MUH), with three patients receiving intensive care.
A month before, on September 15, there were four people with Covid-19 being treated at hospitals in Cork and one person was being cared for in critical care.
While hospitals in Cork are seeing more patients requiring hospitalisation, a leading Cork infectious disease expert said that they are not overwhelmed.
Dr Arthur Jackson, a consultant in infectious diseases, said that nonetheless, the increase in cases being reported in Cork is something that has to be taken seriously.
“We’ve seen case numbers go up much faster than we expected and we are seeing much more cases in Cork, especially if you look at it as a proportion compared to Dublin for example. We were always at a much smaller fraction than the Dublin cases and now we are at a much higher fraction. It’s certainly something we need to take seriously,” he said.
There have been continued warnings that an increase in cases could lead to increased hospitalisations, and Dr Jackson said that this is something that is being seen.
“As we have seen the increased numbers, this week and last week, we have seen an increased number of presentations to the emergency department and increased numbers of cases of people getting sick in hospital, getting very sick in hospital, and some requiring ICU.
“We’re still talking small total numbers of people getting very sick, but what we are concerned about is that if the trajectory keeps going the way it is, that could get overwhelming,” he said.
While Dr Jackson stressed that hospitals in Cork are not overwhelmed at this point, he did say that if it were to happen it could have devastating results.
“I want to stress that we are not overwhelmed quite just yet but it would be completely devastating if the hospitals became overwhelmed with this. It would have effects for the individual patients with Covid but it would also have effects for the non-Covid patients,” he explained.
At the very beginning of the pandemic last March, anyone who tested positive for Covid-19 was hospitalised, but this changed quite quickly, and only those who required hospital care were admitted.
While doctors in Cork and around the world now have much more experience of dealing with and treating Covid-19 than last March, Dr Jackson said it is important that people know that the evidence suggests that there are no effective antivirals to treat this.
Cork University Hospital and the Mercy University Hospital are among hundreds of hospitals around the world currently taking part in the World Health Organization’s Solidarity Trial.
Dr Jackson said interim results from the study, published in recent days, suggest that we don’t have effective antivirals to treat this.
“Some people think that we know how to treat this much better at the moment, but we don’t have effective antivirals.
“The only good treatment we have at the moment, to modify the course of the disease, is giving steroids at the right time which can reduce your progression to serious disease in a certain number of cases,” Dr Jackson said.
They say prevention is better than cure, and Dr Jackson said that it is vital that people take personal action and responsibility to avoid getting Covid-19.
“I know it’s difficult in some cases but in many cases, people have been in close contact with people that maybe they didn’t need to be in close contact with.
“Keep your guard up and you should always treat yourself as if you have it and as if the other people have it.
“You don’t want to give it to other people, you also don’t want to acquire it from other people,” he said.
Dr Jackson added: “We need to take community responsibility to stop the spread of this disease. We can do this. We need to take it as a personal responsibility. We can’t just leave the responsibility at the level of NPHET and the Government.”
As the volume of cases of Covid-19 being reported rises, Prof. Gerry Killeen, AXA Research Chair in Applied Pathogen Ecology at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork, said that action is needed to tackle the rise in cases.
Professor Killeen, who has strongly advocated for a Zero Covid approach to the pandemic here in Ireland, said that he was very concerned that we are “not that far away from having to shut down non-Covid services”.
While Professor Killeen said he believed that a move to Level 5 is the “right thing to do”, he said that six-weeks at Level 5 would not be enough to take Ireland to an end-point in terms of Covid-19.
Instead, he said, this time should be used to have a conversation of what path to take next — whether to crush the curve or live with the virus.
“As a society we have to stop arguing with each other and all look this virus in the eye. We’ve just got to face up to the biological reality — the choices it gives us, it makes the rules, we don’t. We’ve just got to decide how we play the game,” he said.