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Bad news: 40,000 people waiting on tests

There are two ways of looking at these numbers:

“There are now about 40,000 people in Ireland waiting for a test for the coronavirus, the HSE has said.

At a briefing on Sunday the HSE’s chief operations officer, Anne O’Connor, said the average waiting period for a test was four to five days.

However, she said the HSE had accelerated the provision of testing sites and was looking to reduce the waiting period over coming days. There are 35 testing sites but by Tuesday this is expected to rise to 41. The largest of these, at Cork’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh where 1,000 tests a day could be provided, opened on Sunday. The LE Samuel Beckett navy vessel is now also being used as a testing site in Dublin.”

The optimist in me says that there are actually several reasons to be pleased with that number. For one thing, it shows that the public are aware of what symptoms to look for in themselves and others, and are promptly seeking tests. For another thing, presumably, if you’re seeking a test for the Coronavirus, you’re also taking steps to isolate yourself and not pass it on. By simply seeking a test, people are demonstrating that they are acting responsibly and with caution.

And of course, the very optimistic take is that every single one of us knows a local hypochondriac who comes down with every disease and illness known to man – there’s reason, in that view of the world, to suspect that about 30,000 of that number are just the people who get tested for everything, just to make sure, while almost secretly hoping that they have it. You know the type.

The pessimistic take, of course, is that if even ten per cent of those seeking a test genuinely have all the symptoms and end up testing positive, then we have a much bigger problem than current figures would suggest.

Here’s professional actor and part-time polemicist John Connors, for example, saying that he’s been waiting for a test for a week now:


Now, obviously Connors is frustrated that he can’t get a test, and who can blame him? If I had the symptoms of Coronavirus and I couldn’t get a test after a week, I’d be going around the twist. There are a lot of people, presumably, in his situation.

But is it down, as he alleges, to Government incompetence? That seems a stretch. The present Government does, indeed, have a long and distinguished record of monumental incompetence, on everything from the Children’s hospital to housing and health and all the rest, but even Augustus Caesar himself, were he back and walking amongst us, could not magic 40,000 testing kits into existence.

One of the mistakes people are making, because of all the emphasis on “the numbers” is to assume that the numbers are easy to assemble. Even with the massive ramp-up in testing, the government is certain to miss plenty of cases, mainly the asymptomatic.

Iceland, for example, which, because of its tiny population, is able to test Icelandic citizens at random, is finding that about 50% of all people who test positive for Coronavirus have no symptoms at all:

Importantly, approximately half of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 are non-symptomatic, according to Gudnason as reported by BuzzFeed. The other half is mostly showing “very moderate cold-like symptoms.”

That figure, if it’s anywhere near to correct, is much more worrying than 40,000 people needing testing. It’s not the 40,000 with symptoms we need to worry about, assuming that they’re not collapsing (as yet) into the hospital system. It’s the other 40,000 who might be walking around the streets with no symptoms at all, doing things like, well, this:

For those of you wondering why Iceland can do random tests and Ireland can’t, remember that the population of Iceland is about 360,000. It’s less than a third the size of Dublin, let alone the rest of the country. Even in a relatively small country like this one, there are limits to how much capacity can be devoted to testing. Bigger countries like the UK and the US are in even more trouble.

All of this explains why we need the present lockdown, and why it may need to go further. This is the first, and it will almost certainly be the only, time, that this site will approvingly cite the Minister for Health, but these are extraordinary times:

He’s right: Don’t wait for the test. Assume you have the virus, and that you are contagious. If you have symptoms and need treatment, you’ll get a test, eventually. But testing won’t save you, anyway – only treatment will.

Besides, if you have Coronavirus and you’re in danger, you won’t need a test to figure that out:

“It first struck me how different it was when I saw my first coronavirus patient go bad. I was like, Holy shit, this is not the flu. Watching this relatively young guy, gasping for air, pink frothy secretions coming out of his tube and out of his mouth. The ventilator should have been doing the work of breathing but he was still gasping for air, moving his mouth, moving his body, struggling. We had to restrain him. With all the coronavirus patients, we’ve had to restrain them. They really hyperventilate, really struggle to breathe. When you’re in that mindstate of struggling to breathe and delirious with fever, you don’t know when someone is trying to help you, so you’ll try to rip the breathing tube out because you feel it is choking you, but you are drowning.

Yeah. I’m staying at home and locking the doors. If you’re smart, you’ll do the same.


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