HSE says Covid-19 testing is ‘reaching capacity’ after surge in demand

The HSE has defended its decision to suspend serial testing in meat plants to meet the surge in referrals for Covid-19 tests from GPs for people showing symptoms in the community.

Paul Reid, chief executive of the HSE, said that it was the “right decision” to redeploy resources from serial, asymptomatic testing in food processing plants because if the trend of community testing referrals continued, the system would be almost at its weekly capacity of 100,000 tests.

Speaking at the HSE’s weekly Covid-19 briefing, he said the number of GP referrals for testing this week – a large proportion of which was for children returning to school and people in north Dublin – created a “significant challenge on the daily lab testing because we are reaching capacity.”

Mr Reid said that the HSE had to “triage” testing and prioritise the referral of people who were showing Covid-19 symptoms and must take “the right daily agile decisions.“

“We have the 100,000 capacity. We have to address what comes at us on a daily basis and we have to take public health guidance and the prioritisation of resources,” said Mr Reid.

Asked if the weekly capacity of 100,000 tests, which equates to roughly 14,200 a day, needed to be increased, he said: “If capacity needs to be increased, we will have to seek that.”

The HSE received 13,000 referrals for tests on Monday and a further 8,000 on Tuesday, forcing the health service to postpone scheduled serial testing on asymptomatic cases in meat plants and food processing companies – a high-risk area that led to local lockdowns last month – to next week.

“Both of these [days ]are significant increases on a normal day’s referral for community testing, which has generally been 4,000 to 5,000,” Mr Reid told reporters at the briefing in UCD in Dublin.

The 21,000 referrals for community testing in a two-day period compares with 28,000 community test referrals for the whole of last week and 25,000 the week before. This amounted to an increase of 16.5 per cent in community testing needs in the week, he said.

Mr Reid said that on some days, demand for lab testing had reached in excess of 14,000, which is close to the State’s daily capacity for Covid-19 testing.