Winter plan for the ‘perfect storm’ of flu and Covid-19

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The Department of Health is working on plans for a possible severe early flu season, combined with Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses, the health minister has said.

Stephen Donnelly said this potential “perfect storm” could mean a combined flu and Covid-19 vaccination program will take place earlier this year, for the autumn/winter season.

Mr Donnelly said in Australia its winter flu season has been severe, is above the five-year average and is happening earlier and the mix of Covid-19 there has caused additional challenges.

Normally, influenza strains from the southern hemisphere arrive in Europe in winter.

Minister Donnelly said preliminary data here shows Ireland’s Covid-19 outbreak may have peaked and the number of hospital admissions is now falling.

As of 8 a.m. there were 782 people with Covid-19 in hospital, up from 33 at the same time yesterday.

However, the minister warned that this was preliminary data and only the beginning.

He met acting chief medical officer Professor Breda Smyth on Monday for a briefing on the current situation and what could happen for the autumn and winter period.

However, professor of experimental immunology at Trinity College Dublin Kingston Mills said it was difficult to determine whether Ireland had passed the peak of this most recent wave.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Philip Boucher-Hayes, Prof Mills said it was difficult to get a precise figure on the number of cases because people are using antigen tests and not reporting a positive result.

He added that BA5 is currently the dominant strain in Ireland, so those infected in recent weeks will most likely have had BA5.

“If you’ve been infected with BA5 before, you probably have good protection against re-infection with BA5, but if you’ve had Delta or even Omicron, you’re not really going to be protected against BA5 because that variant is so different from Omicron,” he said.

“There are so many mutations in the spike protein of the virus that it not only evades immunity with vaccines, but immunity generated by previous infection.”

Meanwhile, an emergency preparedness and response expert from the European Center for Disease Prevention said Covid deaths were rising in some countries.

Agorista Baka said many countries are changing their testing strategy and this has implications for the data recorded and the conclusions that can be drawn from it.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Philip Boucher-Hayes, she added that the “hard indicators” are hospitalizations and intensive care admissions for Covid.

“All are on the rise right now. It’s been going on for a few weeks actually and we’re seeing the cases and in some countries the deaths going up across all age groups, mostly for the older age groups,” the official said. Dr Baka.

She added that additional ECDP modeling led to the publication of an article which states that with the BA.5 increase, it “makes sense to boost everyone over 60 in this moment”.

She said countries should consider preventive measures individually, including masks and remote working depending on the epidemiological picture and the pressure on the health system.

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