WHILE January is traditionally the peak period for illnesses such as flu, Dr Nuala O’Connor, Covid-19 lead for the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) said that exhausted GPs are already seeing significant numbers of children and adults who are unwell.
The Cork doctor said the somewhat early start to a busy period for doctors comes at a time when healthcare professionals are exhausted.
“Every year in general practice, we always get a sort of maybe six, eight, maybe 10 weeks, where we get this big surge in infections and we have to absolutely up the ante. The days are longer, it’s just really busy periods. We kind of all breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over.
“We’ve been at this for a long time, and there’s been no let-up. I wouldn’t say winter never stopped but certainly, winter has started very early and it’s still only the start of November and there’s a long road ahead.”
While Covid-19 continues to present a concern for doctors, with case numbers in Cork climbing, Dr O’Connor said GPs are seeing people with symptoms of a range of infections.
“What we’re seeing in practice is we’re seeing a lot of people with symptoms of infection. We’re seeing a lot of both adults and children with fevers, coughs, colds, sore throat, croup, aches and pains, sinus symptoms. The vast majority of the people that we are seeing in general practice do not have Covid. They have the other winter respiratory viruses that are around. So they have RSV, they have the common cold - the other coronavirus, rhinoviruses and all the normal winter respiratory stuff,” Dr O’Connor said.
The Cork GP said that as many adults may now self-refer for Covid-19 tests that GPs may not be seeing a true picture of Covid-19 in the community, but that they are still dealing with referring some patients for tests as well as triaging or counselling patients with questions and queries around the virus.
Dr O’Connor noted particular concern around a trend where some people with symptoms of the virus are carrying out antigen tests at home instead of requesting a PCR test, and once they receive a negative antigen result, carrying on with their normal activities.
“What we’ve noticed is that people, they’re getting some mild symptoms, they or their child, and they’re doing an antigen test. And if the antigen test is negative, they’re saying, ‘Oh, that’s okay. I’m ok to go out.’
“But when you have symptoms, you have an infection. It may not be Covid but we need people to not to be going and spreading whatever infection it is in the workplace or in the schools or in the creches or saying, ‘oh I’m ok to go to that dinner, go out for dinner with my friends or I’m okay to go to that party’.
"If you have symptoms, the most important thing to get all of the winter viruses under control, including Covid-19, is to stay at home.
“The PCR test is the gold standard. So if you have symptoms, go for a PCR test. They’re free, they are readily available. And if you have symptoms, you should not be going out anyway,” she said.
The Cork GP said that people should be trying to stop the spread of all viruses.
“I think we need to broaden the message. It’s not just about Covid anymore. This is about stopping the spread of all winter viruses, one of which could be Covid,” she added.
With general practice under pressure, Dr O’Connor urged patients to be patient with doctors.
“We are doing our best but we are dealing with a lot of sick people. Like in the hospitals where they have to defer operations, defer routine work, it’s the same with us.
"There are only so many hours in the day, there are only so many of us, and there are only so many people that we can see safely and we have to prioritise.
"And that means that some of our other less acute work is actually being pushed out and it’s very frustrating for patients.”
While Dr O’Connor acknowledged that Covid-19 case numbers still remain high, she said that for most people these infections are mild and they are recovering well at home.
The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that the weekly number of cases of the virus being reported in Cork is rising steadily with 1,774 new cases reported in the county during the week ending October 29, up from 1,671 the previous week.
There has also been a rise in the number of Covid-19 deaths reported in Cork, with 475 Covid-19 deaths now reported here since the beginning of the pandemic.
An analysis of figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) shows that Covid-19 deaths have now been reported in Cork every week for 11 consecutive weeks (up to October 29)
“We do have a significant amount of people in hospital with Covid. We have a significant amount of people that are in intensive care, but we’re hoping that that may actually be stabilising,” said Dr O’Connor.
“Even though there are lots of cases, they are not translating into serious harm. The other thing is, as you know, the majority of people who are in intensive care, have not been fully vaccinated.”
As the country faces its second winter with Covid-19, Dr O’Connor acknowledged that many now have Covid-19 fatigue but stressed that it is important that people do not become complacent around the virus.
“Our society is the most open it has been, which is fantastic and it’s great. And I want it to stay that way. Nobody wants to go backwards. But I do think that we all need to just maybe tone it down a little.
“We need to do a risk assessment and say, ‘Okay, do I need to go to that party - there’s a big crowd there’, just be a little bit more careful in how we choose to socialise between now and Christmas because we know this is a high-risk time and it’s got colder, people are meeting indoors. We know this virus loves the poorly ventilated crowded indoor spaces, particularly where people are speaking out loud or singing or laughing. We know that’s what this virus loves.
“We can see every time we open up another layer, we always get a little spike in cases. that’s normal. That’s to be expected. It’s just everybody I think just needs to take a little step back and do a risk assessment.”
She said this personal risk assessment will be different for different people.
“Everybody needs to do that risk assessment again, as to what they’re planning on doing, what risks it entails for them, and then make a choice,” she said.