‘Right decision’: HSE boss says suspension of meat plant testing was necessary to deal with surge in demand elsewhere

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The serial testing has been suspended in order to meet the surge in demand for community testing.

HSE CEO PAUL Reid has defended the decision to suspend serial testing of workers at meat plants and insisted its the kind of “agile” move health officials need to take in order to prioritise testing for those who need it most. 

It emerged yesterday evening that the widescale testing of meat processing plant staff, introduced on 21 August, was to be paused until next week. 

Significant clusters of Covid-19 have been linked to meat processing plants throughout the pandemic, and outbreaks in such facilities were a factor in the introduction of localised restrictions in Kildare, Offaly and Laois last month.

The testing has resulted in a positivity rate of 0.27% among the workers, uncovering around 40 cases, the HSE said. 

Sinn Féin’s agriculture spokesman Matt Carthy yesterday described the move as “reckless” and inexplicable. 

However speaking to reporters at the HSE’s weekly briefing in UCD this morning Reid said it was the correct course of action. 

“We have to be agile,” he said. 

The decision to prioritise tests to meet demand from people being referred by GPs was made in response to a surge in those requests in the early days of this week, Reid said. On Monday there 13,000 such referrals and there were 8,000 on Tuesday.

Serial testing took place at the meat plants on Monday and Tuesday this week before the suspension came into effect. While the widespread testing is being paused, outbreak testing is to continue in the sector, the HSE’s National Lead for Testing and Tracing Niamh O’Beirne said today. 

Said Reid: “We have to triage and we have to prioritise symptomatic referrals from GPs – so it’s the right decision to move the resource and use the capacity for symptomatic referrals, and it is a rescheduling of the meat plants into next week.”

He said it was an example of the kind of quick decisions that needed to be made in response to emerging trends in the pandemic. 

The move had been clinical and public health led and was not just an operational decision, he added. 

The issue was raised with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar today in the Dáil, with Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty stating that it was “baffling” that the health minister did not raise the matter last night during a debate on Covid-19.

He said it is “reckless and shortsighted” considering what happened in Kildare, Offaly and Laois.

“No other private industry has had such an effect on Covid-19, outbreaks in factories lead to increased risk in the community. Minister for Agriculture said yesterday testing has begun, but we know tests have already been cancelled, you couldn’t make it up,” he said.

Varadkar said the tests haven’t been cancelled, and the HSE has “rescheduled” them to next week. 

He indicated that more testing capacity was needed for community testing.

Labour’s Alan Kelly said the fact testing in meat factories has stopped, when clusters in some counties has already had local lockdowns is concerning.

A HSE spokesperson said last night: 

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“It is important to remember that where an outbreak occurs in a plant then normal mass testing will still occur in meat plants.

Public Health will be in touch locally in those situations. In the meantime, if a staff member develops symptoms of coronavirus, we would ask them to self-isolate and phone a GP to be referred for a free coronavirus test.

Separately a meeting of NPHET is getting under way around now, where it’s expected revised restrictions for Dublin will be discussed. 

Restrictions on visits to households in the county are likely to be considered as cases continue to rise. 

– With reporting from Michelle Hennessy at the HSE briefing 

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