A tale of two Irelands – how have some counties succeeded in keeping Covid rates so low? 

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The Covid-19 battle in 2021 has truly been a tale of two Irelands.

eitrim, with its small population of 32,000, is on its way to becoming a zero-Covid county.

Kilkenny somehow managed to avoid a huge surge of cases in the south-east and since February 14, it hasn’t recorded more than 50 cases in a week.

Meanwhile, Clare, Cork and Kerry have spent the best part of the year in the bottom half of the incidence rate table.

So how have these counties managed to achieve what others couldn’t while the country is under lockdown?

“We’re not big socialisers in Leitrim,” Dr Sean Bourke in Ballinamore tells the Irish Independent.

“We might be lacking in facilities but we’ve a lot of open air and people are much more separated. We don’t have crowds gathering here like they do in Dublin.”

His GP practice has gone more than two months without a patient testing positive for Covid-19.

Since February 28, no more than 10 cases have been recorded in the space of a week in the Wild Rose county. Between March 21 and April 2, Leitrim went seven days with no cases and recorded fewer than five on all the others.

There have been fewer than 800 cases in total there since the pandemic began, according to data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

The Government has rejected calls for lockdowns to be applied at local levels and for counties with low case numbers to have restrictions lifted, but Dr Bourke disagrees.

“We should get some remission. I think they should have let the sports clubs open a bit earlier, as the fresh air will do everyone good. I do think they should lift parts of the restrictions for places like Leitrim. We’re suffering at the hands of other counties at the moment.”

Dr Bourke is happy that the vast majority of his patients haven’t contracted Covid-19, but he fears the pandemic may take its toll in other ways.

“I do worry there is going to be an epidemic of all kinds of cancers and illnesses when this is over. The whole back-up in the system is going to cause chaos and there will be consequences for people’s health. Some of my patients can’t get a chest x-ray for 12 weeks.”

In Kilkenny, a county with a population three times the size of Leitrim’s, the last five months has been a game of two halves.

Cases soared in the lead-up to Christmas and a big outbreak was recorded in St Luke’s Hospital.

In the first week of January, 844 people tested positive in the Marble County but since then the number of cases have consistently fallen. Strangely, this happened at a time when Wexford, Carlow and Waterford saw a huge spike in Covid. The south-east counties went a period of five weeks at the top of the infection table but since February 28, fewer than 30 cases were recorded each week in Kilkenny. Between March 28 and April 2, there were three days with zero cases.

Fianna Fáil councillor Peter ‘Chap’ Cleere believes the county learned harsh lessons at Christmas and this led to a change in attitudes.

He sadly lost his own grandmother to Covid-19 last year after she contracted it in a nursing home.

“There are a lot of individuals and families who were left devastated and heartbroken by what happened at Christmas,” he said.

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Peter Cleere says high Covid numbers in the lead-up to Christmas were a wake-up call for people in KIlkenny

Peter Cleere says high Covid numbers in the lead-up to Christmas were a wake-up call for people in KIlkenny

Peter Cleere says high Covid numbers in the lead-up to Christmas were a wake-up call for people in KIlkenny

Peter Cleere says high Covid numbers in the lead-up to Christmas were a wake-up call for people in KIlkenny

“We’ve had our fair share of pain, like all counties, and seen how hard Covid can hit and the impact it can have. We’ve lost frontline staff in St Luke’s Hospital too. I really do think a lot more people started taking personal responsibility after Christmas.”

The GAA has come under some criticism during the course of the pandemic, with post-match celebrations and secret training sessions being well documented.

But as a former Kilkenny corner forward, ‘Chap’ thinks a desperation to get back playing sport has led to strong discipline in the county.

“Hurling is our life down here. There have been extra efforts by communities to stick with the rules so we can get that back. We’ve played our part and now we’re looking for Nphet to give us something back.”

His local club, Blacks And Whites in Skeoughvosteen, has a walking track around the pitch which has been a “beacon of light” to people, he says.

“The pitches are closed but we have the walking track and everyone has been getting out for socially distanced walks.

There’s one woman who purposefully walks the wrong way just so she can say hello to people as that’s her only interaction in the day. It’s people like that you feel sorry for and you’d like to see restrictions lifted for them.”

GPs in Kilkenny also believe the vaccination programme is driving down numbers.

However, when the Irish Independent asked the Health Service Executive (HSE) for a breakdown of how many vaccines have been administered in each county, a spokesperson said “it is not possible to provide a breakdown of the data requested”.

Dr Mary O’Sullivan of Kilrush Medical Centre in Co Clare has been busy administering jabs over the last month.

The area has been almost virus-free recently and had an incidence rate of 0, until new cases were recorded this week.

The mood in the Clare coastal town is still “very positive” at the moment, she says.

Her practice employs three doctors and it has only recorded around 20 cases among patients since March 2020.

“Before Christmas we only had three or four positives in the whole year and after Christmas we were around the 20 mark. It exploded after Christmas with people travelling home for Christmas and students coming back.”

Like Dr Bourke in Leitrim, she is also in favour of relaxing restrictions for counties with low case numbers.

“The last month has been very good for us in the practice as we’ve had no new cases. There’s been relatively few cases in Clare for the last few weeks and most are on the Limerick border.

“In general we have done very well. There’s a small population and lots of nice places where we can walk. I would really like to see my elderly patients be able to go to Mass too now that they’ve had their vaccines.”

Cork and Kerry have also recorded lower numbers of cases in the last few months.

Cork has a population of 524,868, with 21,780 positives at the time of writing.

The Rebel County is far from virus-free, but its incidence rate has been low when you take the large population into account.

Between January 3 and 9, 5737 cases were recorded. Between March 21 and 27, there were 121 cases. Since February 14, the numbers have consistently gone down and fewer than 200 cases were identified each week.

Skibbereen, Macroom and Bantry all went a fortnight without a case at some point.

The south-west part of Cork city, Carrigaline and Kanturk all also recorded fewer than six cases each over a two-week period in March.

Kerry, with a low density population of 147,700, has been in the bottom half of the table for most of the year.

Data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) shows the number of contacts per person in Kerry and Cork were below the national average during St Patrick’s week.

GPs in these counties will be hoping that people kept their socialising to a minimum during Easter weekend, as health experts fear a possible fourth wave may be on the horizon.

Source: Irish News