OPINION: Offaly people deserve to know where Covid cases are
We hear a lot about Covid-19, don't we? How we hold to key to suppressing it, beating it, crushing it. We hear adverts on the TV and radio about playing our part and holding firm, washing hands, staying apart and sticking together. We listen when our health chiefs and politicians talk about new variants and the worrying spread, restrictions being tightened and then lifted and then tightened again. It's exhausting for a start, but for Offaly people, it is now infuriating.
Since Christmas, Offaly's daily cases have been stubbornly high and for most of that period, we've had the highest 14-day incidence rate of the virus in the entire country. Thirty-odd cases are added to the Offaly total most days and we report it because it's significant. We're being warned about the spread every day and looking around at family and friends, most people are doing the right things, and yet, the virus is spreading faster (per population) in Offaly than anywhere else. It's a worry, no doubt about it.
The latest Local Electoral Area Covid-19 numbers for the two-week period from March 2 to March 15 shows that the rate of the virus has risen in Edenderry and Tullamore, while it's fallen in Birr. The figures show Tullamore is the worst locality in Ireland for Covid-19 cases based on the size of the population.
The 14-day incidence rate for Tullamore is now at 483.6 cases per 100,000 with 141 new cases confirmed in the last two weeks. Last week the rate for the Tullamore Area was 418.4 cases per 100,000 so it's rising and we don't really know why.
The rate in the Edenderry area has also increased this week. Last week the rate for the area stood at 161.3 cases per 100,000 but it has now increased to 300.1 cases per 100,000 with 70 new cases in the last two weeks.
Meanwhile, the Birr Area has seen the rate drop again this week. Two weeks ago, the rate for the Birr area stood at 498.5 cases per 100,000. It fell to 357.2 last week and this week it's down to 274.8 cases per 100,000. There have been 70 new cases in the area in the last two weeks.
As of Friday, the 14-day incidence rate for Offaly as a whole stands at 350.2 cases per 100,000, down only slightly from the previous week and still the highest in Ireland. There have been 273 new cases in Offaly in the two-week period up to March 18. The 14-day incidence rate for Ireland has now fallen to 150.8 cases per 100,000, so Offaly's figure is more than twice that average.
It's a bit like a new secret of Fatima trying to figure out where the cases are and in what settings they are occurring. Our frontline staff and nursing home residents are being vaccinated and yet we have all these cases. Businesses have been closed for months so they're not in restaurants and cafés, and it's not schools because the Offaly cases were rising long before the delayed reopening of education.
Bar an outbreak at the Nelipak plant in Clara which we know contributed more than 20 cases to that Tullamore Local Electoral total last month, we're none the wiser on the cases before or since. For the figures quoted above, we have no idea where those cases are, beyond 'somewhere in Tullamore' and 'somewhere in Edenderry'. Let's not forget these electoral areas are far bigger than just the towns in each case. We have our ear to the ground and talk to a lot of people in the county, and very few are aware of outbreaks.
And we have asked. Last month, responding to the figures and Offaly's precarious position with the virus, Dr Una Fallon, Director of Public Health HSE, Midlands, said: "While Offaly currently has the highest rate of Covid-19 in comparison to other counties, there is no reason to be alarmed.
"Offaly is not a densely populated county so a small rise in the actual number of Covid-19 cases, looks like a significant rise in Covid-19 rates.
"Cases are occurring in a wide range of settings such as workplaces, residential care facilities etc, all of which we are familiar with. No one setting explains the current numbers. I would to thank the public for their efforts to date and appeal to them to continue to adhere to level 5 restrictions, to wear a face mask, to stringently observe social distancing and practice good hand hygiene."
The only thing is; people are alarmed because the 14-day incidence rate reflects spread in relation to population size so a smaller number is more significant in a county like Offaly. It shows a trend that will make people fearful; fearful of their families, friends and neighbours, and that feeling is toxic.
Almost every setting is mentioned as contributing to cases, so we can't pinpoint where they are and there's no urgency to tell us. And yet, we're told to adhere to restrictions, wear a mask, etc, etc. Offaly people are doing all of those things as well as people in any other county. When you go to the supermarket, everybody is wearing a mask. People are staying apart and doing all that is asked of them. And if that's not the case, surely our health chiefs should be telling us.
So, how can we fight back, do the right things and correct offending behaviours affecting our numbers if we don't know where or how those cases are occurring? We deserve to be told so we can address it. We need to know the settings involved so the media can ask the people involved what's going on? What measures are in place? Are they adequate? In the absence of that, we're reporting with both hands tied behind our backs and that has a serious impact on our effectiveness.
Our job as journalists is to shine a light on issues in general and if there are issues in some settings with regard to Covid-19, the information pertaining to those should be shared so we can examine it and delve a little deeper. The residents of the county themselves should be in the know; is there a particular setting in their town or village that is out of control or contributing to the spread and putting them at greater risk?
The relaying of information now, by electoral area, only alerts us to the presence of significant numbers. It's like telling someone to take steps to avoid a wildfire spreading to their home but not telling them where the fire is or how it started. We're aiming the hose in the dark and it's not acceptable.
Every day we're told how many cases there have been, how many vaccines have been administered and how many people have sadly died. The Department of Health has a so-called data hub with charts and tables illustrating this everpresent doom across the country. Despite all that, and with Offaly deemed worst in class, no one has told us where we're going wrong as a county.
Maybe those in charge should have sent themselves back to school instead of the kids.