The current wave of Covid-19 infections in the state appears to have peaked, with a sharp drop in the number of positive cases reported to authorities and hospital admissions also falling. The Health Protection Surveillance Center (HPSC) said 6,196 cases were detected in the week ended July 23, down 47 percent in one week. Given the strict criteria for PCR testing and the fact that most people are unlikely to report positive antigen results, the true number is likely much higher. But the drop is reflected in other data showing a fall in clusters – from 61 to 33 in a week – and a fall in the number of people hospitalized with Covid from 943 to 513 in two weeks.
These positive indicators come as the state prepares to overhaul its response to the pandemic. Testing for the general population will be phased out in early fall while the large test-and-trace infrastructure is rolled back. Both steps make sense. Large-scale vaccination and the evolving profile of the disease have reduced the need for testing and tracking. Maintaining costly structures designed for an emergency phase, with understaffed staff, is difficult to justify, not least given the pressures that healthcare in general is under.
Still, it is important that new contingency plans are in place to ensure the state is able to respond quickly should a more virulent strain of Covid emerge. Much of the responsibility for test and trace will now rest with the National Ambulance Service. A core team of 200 tracers will be available and large stocks of antigen tests will be maintained. As part of the emergency plan, capacity for 150,000 tests should be available within eight weeks.
The disbanding of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has also been justified, but it is crucial that its key functions – monitoring, modeling and coordination – are resumed elsewhere. The HSPC is to have its own permanent modeling group and its staff is to increase by 89. Public health in general must be a priority; One of the lessons learned from the pandemic was how big a mistake it was to leave this field neglected and underfunded for so long.
Public communication has been lacking in the current phase of the pandemic. While there is less need for regular updates on cases and hospital numbers today, the importance of clear, regular advice on vaccinations was underscored this week by figures showing too many people have not taken up the offer of a booster shot.
For most people, Covid is a mild illness and an inconvenience. But many will continue to suffer from the long Covid long after their initial phase of infection, a condition the medical world is still working to understand. And for those with existing medical conditions or a compromised immune system, Covid remains a dangerous and worrying prospect.