Northern Ireland news

Health officials prepare for 'inevitability' of coronavirus as suspected cases urged not to go to GP or A&E

Dr Michael McBride, Chief Medical Officer addresses yesterday's media briefing about the coronavirus virus outbreak preparations in Northern Ireland. Picture Mal McCann.
Seanín Graham

HEALTH officials are ramping up preparations for the first case of coronavirus in Northern Ireland which they now say is inevitable.

Patients who are experiencing symptoms such as fever and coughing and have recently returned from affected countries are also being urged not to go to their GP or A&E department but to instead ring a new helpline number where they will directed appropriately for testing.

A total of 21 people have been tested to date across the north, with all results coming back negative.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) yesterday confirmed that a new testing centre for 'Covid-19' will be based at the Belfast trust's regional viral laboratory to speed up results, with a 24-hour turnaround on suspected cases.

Up until now, tests were sent to England.

An Emergency Operations Centre manned by ten PHA officials is also "up and running" to carry out surveillance and liaise with the Department of Health and six health trusts as well as counterparts in the UK and the Republic in tackling the global outbreak.

The dedicated 24-hour helpline for the north was set up earlier this week and provide advice to those who have travelled to China and other affected countries, including Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Macau, over the past fortnight.

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While the vast majority of people who contract the respiratory virus will experience a mild illness and make a full recovery, health authorities say they cannot be complacent as the strain is so new.

Health protection plans used before during previous flu outbreaks, such as Swine Flu in 2010, are being used as a basis to "inform preparations".

More than 43,000 people had been diagnosed across 29 countries with the virus while 1,018 deaths have been recorded, mainly in China.

Eight patients in England have tested positive for coronavirus.

During a media briefing yesterday, the north's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, said there the virus will "undoubtedly" arrive in Northern Ireland.

"I think we will inevitably see cases at some stage...It should come as no surprise when we get our first case," he said.

Dr McBride said it was important to stress that those with symptoms should "not go running to primary care" or hospitals but instead contact the authorities to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

Dr Gerry Waldron, who heads up the health protection unit at the PHA, said they had been dealing with suspected cases since mid-January but that things were "changing day by day".

He described the current period as a "containment phase" in that health authorities in the north are keen to identify anyone who potentially has the virus and reduce its spread.

Officials also explained that once a positive case is diagnosed, they will embark on "contact tracing" to track down those who have been in close contact with the infected individual - including those who have been within a two-metre distance for more than 15 minutes.

This could mean identifying passengers who shared a plane journey with them.

"The risk is very low...but once we have a positive case we will identify those most at risk," Dr Waldron said.

The top medic added: "To help reduce any potential spread of coronavirus, we are urging people to follow the steps that we recommend for similar illnesses such as cold and flu - catch it, bin it, kill it. Always carry tissues to catch your cough or sneeze, dispose of the tissue as soon as possible after using it, and clean your hands as soon as you can as germs can spread to every surface you touch."

The PHA's 24 hour helpline is on 03002007885. Alternatively go to www.pha.site/coronavirus to find out more.

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