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MADNESS: Government tells hospitals and nursing homes to lift visitor bans

There are days, watching the Irish Government’s response to Coronavirus, where you start to feel relatively confident in it for a while. Then something like this happens:

Many Irish hospitals and nursing homes have voluntarily – that is to say, the Government didn’t order them – put in place bans on visitors coming in to see the old and the sick.

This makes sense. The old, and the sick, are the two groups at greatest risk of death from Coronavirus. If the two people who visited my home yesterday left me with the Coronavirus, then – according to the mortality figures – there’s a 99.8% chance I would survive to hold a grudge against them for the rest of my life.

But if they walked into a hospital or a nursing home and gave it to a sick or elderly person, the chance of death, as best we can tell, is about one in six.

Now, to be fair, there probably should be some exceptions to the visitor ban. If an elderly or sick person is dying of natural causes, it would seem absurd and cruel to keep their family away from the hospital as they spent their last hours on earth. Similarly, nursing homes are often lonely places for elderly people who might be suffering dementia or something similar, and who are used to a regular visit from a familiar face. A bit of common sense, in other words, would go a long way.

But in general, at a time when we’re trying to keep a potentially deadly virus at bay, what possible reason is there for people to be visiting buildings where scores of the most at-risk people are housed?

None. There is no reason for it. That’s the answer.

On that death rate, by the way, the latest numbers from Italy are terrifying: 10,149 cases, 631 deaths. That’s a 6.2% mortality rate. At that rate, if the HSE’s weekend projection of an eventual 1.9 million Irish cases was correct, you’d be looking at 117,000 Irish deaths.

But the good news is that there is plenty of reason to be sceptical of that number. In South Korea, for example, which has a much more rigorous testing programme to catch the disease, and a similar number of cases to Italy, the death rate is just 1%.

There are a couple of potential explanations for that: First, it could be that the South Korean health system is much better than the Italian one. Certainly, the Koreans are not suffering the same capacity problems as Italy is: they’re not (as yet) running out of beds. The Italians are. The fewer people you can treat, the more people will die. This is why Irish policy (officially) is to try to delay the so-called peak of the disease, to allow the health service more room to operate.

Second, the Italians have a much older population than the Koreans. The average age of an Italian citizen is 47. The average age of a Korean is 41. That might not sound like a big difference, but it is. Because the disease mainly kills the old, it is likely to kill far more people in Italy than in South Korea. So that also explains some of the difference. What’s the average age in Ireland? 37.4. In other words, we’re likely to see many fewer deaths than Italy.

And third, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the question of detection: Put simply, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that Italy actually has many times more cases of Coronavirus than it is reporting. This piece in the Guardian notes that Italian doctors were noticing an unusually high number of patients with pneumonia as far back in time as January. The testing programme was somewhat delayed. Since most people are likely to have a mild illness, it’s likely that the death rate is actually far closer to South Koreas than the statistics say – it’s just that most cases aren’t being caught.

Of course, that’s not all good news. Far more Italians with the disease than we think means the chances of it being spread far and wide outside of Italy are even higher than the official numbers suggest, particularly if people with mild symptoms who don’t even know that they have it are passing it on.

So in that context, the information we have is as follows: Older people, and the sick, are more likely to die. Healthy folks might not even know that they have it, but can still pass it on.

And there’s the department of health, demanding that visitors be allowed back into hospitals. You don’t have to be an expert to know that that’s about the most stupid thing you’ve ever heard.

Old and sick people matter. Ignore our idiot Government and stay away from them, for a little while, please.

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