AS we reach the first anniversary of the emergence of Covid-19 in the country, it is clear our battle against the virus is far from over. Life has been turned upside down but vaccinations offer a beacon of hope after incredibly difficult 12 months.
On Saturday, February 29, 2020, the first case of Covid-19 in Ireland was confirmed, two months after the world first began to learn about a virus that was emerging on the other side of the globe.
It has since been revealed, however, that a patient at Cork University Hospital tested positive for the virus four days before this first official case in Ireland.
The case was identified by doctors at CUH and appeared to be the first known case in Ireland. The patient was tested by hospital staff outside of the national guidelines that were in place at the time.
Just shy of two months prior, on December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) was alerted to a “cluster” of pneumonia cases of “unknown aetiology” in Wuhan, China.
On January 16, a report about the mysterious pneumonia outbreak was published on RTÉ News.
Following the arrival of Covid-19 in Ireland, by March 4 Ireland’s first cluster of cases was confirmed after a family of four tested positive for the disease in the west of the county.
On March 9 Cork City Council confirmed that the St Patrick’s Day parade was cancelled and on March 11, the first death as a result of Covid-19 was recorded in Ireland as the WHO declared the virus outbreak a pandemic.
The next day brought a moment that will forever be engrained in the memory of the nation as then-Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar addressed the country and announced a number of significant measures to tackle the outbreak of the virus which included the temporary closure of schools, colleges and universities. By the last day of March, some 17 deaths were confirmed in addition to 325 new cases of the infection. By now, there were 238 cases in Cork.
As both a GP and Lord Mayor of Cork at the time, Dr John Sheehan was looking at the virus from both perspectives in its early days in Europe and Ireland.
This time last year, the former Lord Mayor was anticipating the impact of the virus and its inevitable spread to Cork and the rest of Ireland.
“We were looking at it from a GP’s perspective and you would see it on the news and it getting closer and you knew that it was inevitably going to come to Ireland but then we had decisions such as cancelling St Patrick’s Day parade and other events,” he said.
“I remember on St Patrick’s Day we had an Irish College of General Practitioners Zoom or webinar and there were 2,500 GPs and it was one of the first webinars that we were involved with.
“2,500 GPs on a St Patrick’s Day logged on to it to find out about Covid and to get more information so it was a very different St Patrick’s Day than we had thought it would initially be.”
Dr Sheehan noted the decision to cancel St Patrick’s Day celebrations along with the commemorations of Tomás MacCurtain in Cork which were to take place before St Patrick’s Day.
“There was a huge sort of sense of excitement and anticipation about it and then of course it all had to be pulled and our lives changed an awful lot really.”
For GPs across Cork, it was like “waiting for a tsunami to come” as they prepared for the arrival of Covid-19 in the county.
“Each day you were kind of preparing yourself and there was genuine fear around from patients and from healthcare staff and I know colleagues who went and made wills when they saw what was happening in Italy, there was a very tangible fear about that.
“One of the things I’m really proud of is the way all the healthcare staff [reacted] but the HSE to be fair and the City Council really reacted to it with speed.”
For the former Lord Mayor, one of the prominent memories of the early days of the virus and the changes it brought was having to inform the family of a patient that they might not see their loved one again.
“One of the big things that sticks out was sending someone to hospital and when you were sending them to hospital, you were saying to the families that they need to say goodbye because they wouldn’t be allowed into the hospital and that this might be the last time you see them and that was really, really tough for the family.
“Their loved one was going off to hospital, they didn’t know whether they were going to make it or not, and they had to say their goodbyes there and then.”
“It’s the suddenness of that for families was really, really shocking and brought it home to a lot of families,” he added.
In April of 2020, Dr Sheehan’s practice had their first patient with Covid-19.
“I remember it well, ringing the patient, talking to them,” he said.
“There was also a curiosity factor about it because they were the very first patient so you would be very keen to see were the ok and how they got on and their journey and all that and then obviously, the cases have increased dramatically since.”
In just eight or nine months, the practice, like most GPs across Ireland, would see a dramatic influx in Covid-19 cases.
The surge in cases came following the arrival of the UK variant and the Christmas period.
On December 21, a ban on flights to Ireland from Great Britain was introduced and Ireland was again placed on Level 5 restrictions from midnight on Christmas Eve.
With additional restrictions put in place from New Years Day and the extension of the ban on travel between the UK and Ireland in place, on January 11, Ireland’s daily Covid-19 rate was the highest in the world with a seven-day rolling average of 1,394 cases per million.
“January really took us all by surprise,” said Dr Sheehan. “The extent that the cases increased, it was a very different sort of situation than March, you’d have one person who might have it and then next thing, all of their family and nearly all of their direct contacts would have it.
“Really we felt that Christmas and January was, from a Covid point of view, probably our busiest of the whole year.”
Just months before, the summer of 2020 was a stark contrast to what was to come that winter.
In May, the Government approved the movement to the first phase of the new roadmap which was designed to reopen society and the economy and by early June, the country had moved to the second phase.
On June 8 2020, Ireland reported a total of nine new cases of Covid-19. On January 8, 2021, 8,248 cases were reported in one day.
Professor Ivan Perry, Dean of Public Health at University College Cork and a member of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group (ISAG) commended the initial response to the virus in Ireland.
He said that the first lockdown in Ireland was “extremely effective” with “high levels of compliance” but that the trouble came over the summer, when we began to see a reduction in daily case numbers.
“During the summer, when we got the numbers down, we took our foot off the pedal,” he said. “Instead of learning from countries like Australia and New Zealand… we gradually took our foot off the pressure and those of us in public health could see the numbers creeping up and it was perfectly obvious that we were going to have a second wave.”
The second wave did indeed come, along with the third wave, but the summer period sticks out to Professor Perry as a time when “we stopped thinking of this as a public health emergency”.
Professor Perry said that he was aware of fears of the impact of restrictions on the economy but noted the continuation of international travel and flights coming in and out of Irish airports over the summer period.
“If we wanted to get out of this reasonably quickly and have the numbers down- we should have done everything we could to keep them down.”
The Independent Scientific Advocacy Group (ISAG) is a multidisciplinary group of scientists, academics, and researchers who have come together to advocate for the strategy of the elimination of Covid-19 in Ireland.
The group was founded in July 2020 by Professor Anthony Staines, Professor Gerry Killeen and Dr Tomás Ryan.
“During this summer when you were looking at the numbers and even though they were small, even though they were relatively low compared to now, but last August you could just see the numbers week by week just gradually inching up,” said Professor Perry.
“This was a time when we were still talking about opening the University and the kids coming back to college and the wet pubs opening and so on.
“We were just scratching our heads and saying this is not in the real world.”
In early February of this year, ISAG launched a public campaigning urging the Government to introduce a Zero Covid Strategy, similar to the approach taken by Australia and New Zealand.
The strategy includes a number of steps such as the distribution of vaccines, a county by county approach, the quarantining of incoming travellers and investment in testing and tracing infrastructure.
“I was reacquainting myself with my public health training as the pandemic evolved and that’s why I suppose, very early on, became frustrated by the Zero Covid argument,” said Professor Perry who has continued calls for the Zero Covid approach. There was no point trying to negotiate with this virus or trying to live with the virus, that might be our idea, but it was clear that the virus was always going to have different ideas.”
It has been over a year since we first began to learn about a mysterious virus on the other side of the world and the end of February will mark the anniversary of the day that we discovered that Covid-19 had officially landed in the Republic of Ireland.
Now, with a total of over 200,000 confirmed cases across the country and more than 4,300 deaths, the Covid-19 vaccinations bring some hope, according to Dr Sheehan.
“As the vaccine rolls out, that should hopefully change the whole dynamic of Covid because once we get all our over 70s vaccinated, that will make a big, big difference because they are the are by far biggest risk factor,” he said.
Speaking last week Taoiseach Micheál Martin said, “the end is now truly in sight”.
After a year of Covid, Ireland remains hopeful that life with the virus will have changed for the better by the second anniversary.