The next eight weeks are critical in the fight against COVID-19, the deputy chief medical officer has said.
According to Dr Ronan Glynn, any significant increase in close contacts over the coming weeks "is likely to lead to a significant fourth wave of infection in the range of that experienced in January 2021".
"We can and should be optimistic for an enjoyable summer ahead but, in the meantime, we have to continue to work together to prevent a further wave of infection as we accelerate vaccination across society and maintain our health services," he commented.
He explained that public health measures and the vaccination programme will "significantly reduce the risk of COVID-19 over the next relatively short period of time" and will "radically reduce mortality when those over 70 are fully vaccinated". However, he emphasised that initially, this will have a smaller effect on hospitalisation and critical care until such time as the wider adult population is vaccinated.
According to Prof Philip Nolan, chair of NPHET's Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, the reproduction number is currently estimated to be between 1.0 and 1.3.
"If the epidemic is growing again now, the doubling time is estimated at 35 days or longer. When comparing the risks of levels of social mixing now and over the coming months with that which applied in 2020, we need to take into account the B117 variant and how easily that transmits," he commented.
However, he also noted that vaccination-induced immunity "will progressively protect us and make it more difficult for the virus to transmit".
"Vaccination will contribute greatly to the easing of measures in the coming months, however now we need to keep transmission as low as possible so that vaccination of the population can take place and have the desired effect," Prof Nolan said.
Meanwhile, according to Prof Pete Lunn of the Economic and Social Research Institute's Behavioural Research Unit, compliance with public health guidance "remains generally high". However, he warned that the "behaviour of a minority is increasing the risk for all of us".
"Even this minority are trying to stick to restrictions in most aspects, but they are nevertheless visiting other homes. It would be much better if people could instead meet at outdoor locations and maintain distance," he commented.
He said that the research suggests that there are three psychological factors that are linked to increased social activity:
-How worried people are in general by the virus
-Whether they view the restrictions as coherent
-How they personally view the trade-off between preventing the spread of the virus against the burden of the restrictions.
"Interestingly, we don't find that fatigue is directly linked to behaviour. Those who say they are most tired of the restrictions are not more likely to break them. Rather, what matters is whether they view the benefit to society from preventing the spread of the virus as more important," Prof Lunn noted.
Their comments came after a further six deaths and 411 new cases of the virus were reported on Wednesday evening. The total number of deaths now stands at 4,687, while the total number of cases is 235,854.
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