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Challenges remain even if Covid-19 becomes endemic

By Mindo - 21st Jan 2022

At the time of writing, Covid-19 cases are coming down. After record numbers over the Christmas period, driven by the Omicron variant, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Although Omicron is the most contagious variant to date, thankfully it is not the most severe.

Earlier this month, World Health Organisation Incident Manager Dr Abdi Mahamud confirmed emerging evidence that Omicron affects the upper respiratory tract, rather than the lungs. This mainly results in milder symptoms than those associated with previous variants, which were more likely to cause pneumonia. It was noted that more studies would be required to confirm this finding. It was also pointed out that the high transmissibility of Omicron still posed a threat,particularly to countries where a high proportion of the population remain unvaccinated.

So, what now? In Ireland, the timetable for lifting restrictions has been dominating the news agenda, as it does whenever case numbers fall. As we all know by now, a public health emergency does not go away just because restrictions lift. However, some predict Omicron’s rapid spread will push Covid-19 from the pandemic phase to endemic. Vaccination will still be necessary, in addition to other measures, even if this transition occurs. It is more than likely Covid is here to stay. The hope is that in the not-too-distant future it will infect a lot fewer people and be less dangerous.

It is still far from certain how the pandemic will evolve. A more lethal, vaccine-resistant variant could yet emerge. This scenario has more chance of coming to pass without greater commitments to global solidarity and vaccine equity to halt the spread of Covid in poorer nations. Plans will need constant updating in order to respond to potential threats. At the same time, the regular work of Government continues. Health services have been under enormous pressure over the past two years and many existing problems have gotten worse.

The IHCA recently reiterated that the “twin deficits” of a shortage of consultants and a lack of sufficient public hospital capacity needed to be addressed. The warning came as it emerged 879,277 people are now on some form of National Treatment Purchase Fund waiting list. This is an increase of over 40,600 in the past year. “Unfortunately, with the recent increases in Covid cases, overcrowding in our emergency departments and widespread cancellation of essential scheduled care and outpatient appointments, there is little prospect of the waiting list coming under control any– time soon,” warned President of the IHCA Prof Alan Irvine.

“This is simply not good enough, irrespective of the pressures we are facing during this latest Covid wave.” Reducing waiting lists proved difficult for previous administrations even when there was no pandemic. But this is a challenge the Government will have to face, which will not be easy even when society emerges from crisis mode.

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