When we think of “covid cases in hospital”, the average person probably assumes, through more than a year of exposure to talk of covid, that they refer to people who have contracted covid 19, developed symptoms, and gotten so sick that they needed to be admitted to hospital for treatment. And indeed, in many cases, that is exactly what a covid case in hospital is.

But not in all cases, and it is important to remember this. Virgin Media political Editor Gavan Reilly alluded to the problem yesterday:

As you can see, the number of people in Hospital with covid 19 in Ireland, at the time Gavan sent his tweet, was 91. This was an increase of 31 from the week prior, when there were 60 people with covid in hospital.

The problem is this: A significant number of those “new” hospitalisations came from Mayo General Hospital, where there has been an outbreak of covid in the hospital itself. In other words, the figures include people who are in hospital for other reasons, and caught covid while there. It does not matter to the statistics whether somebody is in hospital for breathing difficulties brought on by covid 19, or whether they have no symptoms at all, but tested positive for covid while in the hospital recovering from a broken ankle. The statistics count them the same.

This poses a particular problem in Ireland, when so many of our outbreaks have been in hospital. Consider it the parallel problem to the old “dying with covid” phenomenon, last year, where people who died in car crashes would be counted as a covid death if they had tested positive before sitting into the car for their final journey.

It is especially a problem when the overall number of people in hospital is so low. In this case, this week, a big increase in the number of people in hospital – from 60 to 91 – was driven primarily by an outbreak of covid in the hospital. To many people’s ears, not having that contextual information, it will sound as if the rise in the number of cases has caused a sharp uptick in the number of people requiring hospital treatment. But that is not necessarily true.

This is a statistic that really needs to be changed to properly reflect the situation the health service is facing. The “number of people in hospital with covid” is an entirely different number to the “number of cases of covid 19 requiring hospital treatment”. The second figure is likely to be lower than the first, perhaps by 20-30%.

One problem is, and has been, that the Irish media is simply not doing a good enough job of explaining these distinctions to their audience. It’s good, therefore, to see Virgin Media making a start.