The HSE is reducing its Covid-19 contact tracing teams and moving some staff to the Passport Office to help clear a large backlog.
It will also eventually close its Covid testing centers, with free PCR tests possibly being reduced to patients who need treatment after referral by a doctor or for monitoring later this summer.
Contact tracing teams – which connect with people who may have been exposed to the virus by someone infected with Covid – will be kept in Dublin and Cork.
But staff at its Limerick center are being offered a move to the local Foreign Office passport service to help with on-call work from next month.
The move comes as the Passport Office remains under heavy pressure to deal with a backlog of desperate applicants during the summer holiday season, amid criticism that calls from customers go unanswered.
Last month it was revealed that 195,000 people were waiting for passports, while Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said earlier this week that 7,000 passports were being issued every day. He said 600,000 passports had already been approved this year and there had been a 50-60% increase in passport applications.
During this time, contact tracers at the HSE Galway Center will remain in their current office, but will provide support to the Department for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth working with Ukrainian refugees.
Contact tracer contracts end on June 30 and “over the past few weeks we have worked closely with other HSE departments and other government departments to identify what support our teams could provide to them,” said a spokesperson for Irish Independent.
She added: “The HSE will maintain a core team for both testing and tracing. Additionally, we are developing a plan for future Covid-19 surges or emerging variants of concern. »
She said eligibility for PCR tests offered free by the HSE had already been reduced in February and there had been a significant decrease in demand.
“We expect testing requirements to change further later this summer, and eventually our testing centers will close and Covid-19 testing will only take place for monitoring purposes or if a clinician deems it necessary to purposes of processing.”
It comes as the impact of the BA.4 and BA.5 variants – coupled with more social activity and fewer people wearing face masks – saw the number of hospitalized Covid-19 patients rise to 289 yesterday, from 167 last Saturday of the week.
Among them, 27 are in intensive care, up from 18 on Wednesday last week, although the “long weekend effect” must be taken into account.
The seven-day PCR positivity rate was 18.4%, with 1,004 new cases yesterday. That compares to a seven-day positivity rate of 15% on Wednesday last week and 844 people diagnosed with the virus.
The reduction in contact tracing and the expected tightening of criteria for free HSE PCR tests later this summer follow government signals that the huge sums of public funding injected into the fight against the pandemic in its emergency phase will be seriously reduced and extended to other areas of need. , including staff shortages.
Some of the contact tracing staff in Dublin will be redeployed to undertake work based on HSE-related appeals.
Damien McCallion, HSE’s Head of Testing, Tracing and Immunization, said yesterday: ‘I want to take the opportunity again to thank all of our contact tracing staff for their role in the HSE’s response to Covid- 19.
“For more than two years, the search for contracts has been an essential element in breaking the chain of transmission and keeping communities safe.
“The agility and adaptability of our contact tracing teams was incredible, as they responded to multiple surges, new variants, regular changes in public health advice, the introduction of testing for antigen and the implementation of various computer processes.”