12 new cases in a 24-hour period sparks cluster concerns
ANALYSIS by Paul Healy
County Roscommon has again experienced a sudden spike in confirmed cases of Covid-19. Figures released on Sunday indicated that there had been 12 new cases of Covid-19 in County Roscommon compared with the tally as it stood 24 hours earlier.
This huge percentage increase brought the total at the time to 333. That figure had risen to 336 as of Wednesday evening.
The sudden spike would suggest the existence of a new cluster of cases in the county (though that is unconfirmed).
Having initially been one of the least affected counties in the country, Roscommon’s Covid-19 figures have spiked significantly in recent weeks.
As of Wednesday evening, there were 336 confirmed cases of infection in the county. That compares with just 90 cases six weeks ago.
In early May – just over a month ago – there were 212 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Co. Roscommon. That total has now risen by almost 60% in just over three weeks.
Faring poorly in relation
to neighbouring counties
To put Roscommon’s worrying Covid trend into perspective, one just needs to compare our figures with, for example, neighbouring counties.
Clearly, this is a non-scientific exercise, but it is certainly informative.
Roscommon has a population twice the size of Leitrim’s. Yet Roscommon has over four times as many cases as Leitrim (336 to 83).
Roscommon’s population is virtually the same as Sligo’s – 64,000 people in Roscommon, 65,000 in Sligo. Yet, Sligo has just 129 cases, and Roscommon is heading for 350. Waterford county has a population of 116,000, but has only 152 cases. Galway, with a population of 258,000, has less than 150 more cases than County Roscommon has. Mayo, with a population of 130,000, has 570 cases, as of Wednesday.
Roscommon was doing extremely well back in March, and into mid and late April. It is important, and only fair, to point out that County Roscommon is still doing relatively well. As of earlier this week, seventeen counties had a higher number of cases. And we know that this isn’t about league tables, or some inter-county competition. But we all passionately want to minimise the number of infections. And while the overall figures are still relatively low (just over 0.5% of the people of Roscommon are confirmed to have contracted Covid-19), these occasional surges are worrying and very unwelcome.
Last Sunday, there were just 66 new cases in the entirety of the Republic of Ireland. Remarkably, 12 of those were in County Roscommon. Maybe it was just some sort of a quirk. Maybe it was something to do with how the numbers are collated (but the press release from the National Public Health Emergency Team clearly suggests that it was a rise of 12 in County Roscommon over 24 hours). More likely, it’s a new cluster, or a reactivated cluster. Something has clearly gone wrong in Roscommon.
Speculation about Kepak
In early and mid-May, rumours began circulating that a number of employees of the Kepak meat plant in Athleague had tested positive for Covid-19.
Rumours are rumours. The Roscommon People sought out facts. But it hasn’t been easy. We contacted Kepak’s PR people. They were very cordial. We were asked to email in details of our enquiries. The PR people would see what they could do. All we got back was silence.
We spoke with a number of well-placed sources. These sources said that all employees at Kepak in Athleague were tested. They further indicated that a significant number of those employees had tested positive.
Meanwhile, concerns about the scale of coronavirus infection in meat plants nationally was raised in the Dáil. Roscommon/Galway TD Denis Naughten has been vocal on the issues arising. Raising the issue in the Dáil, Deputy Naughten spoke of clusters of infection surrounding meat plants, with high levels of infection in some such factories.
There is surely a public interest issue here. If there has been a very substantial cluster in one place in County Roscommon, there is a strong argument that the public ought to know. At the very least, it is surely desirable that the public would be given assurances that where a number of employees (of any business) have contracted Covid-19, that these employees have gone into isolation, that contact tracing has been engaged in, that any clusters in our community are being dealt with quickly by the health authorities.
We want to be fair to Kepak. That’s why we sent them another batch of straightforward questions again this week. We asked Kepak if all employees had indeed been tested, and if so, how many had tested positive. We asked what measures are in place in Kepak (for dealing with Covid-19). We asked if there are any plans to temporarily close the plant, and finally, we asked if Kepak management feels it has received sufficient support and guidance from the HSE on these issues.
This time, the Kepak PR people weren’t just cordial; they came back to us with something. But they didn’t answer our specific questions, instead issuing the following statement.
“Kepak Group is designated by Government as an essential service provider; we aim to ensure that our customers have an adequate and quality supply of food available for consumers throughout this Covid-19 pandemic. All our factories, therefore, continue to remain safely operational.
“At Kepak, the health and safety of our staff, customers and suppliers is our key priority. As such, we are actively engaging with our Employee Forums, with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), the Health Service Executive (HSE) and with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), to ensure that best practice Covid-19 control measures and procedures are implemented and adhered to across all our sites.
“Kepak continues to observe all HSE protocols during this pandemic. We are implementing their updated protocols, including additional testing, to enhance the safe ‘return-to-work’ of our staff”.