Peace of mind was the shared goal of people at walk-in Covid testing centres in the past week.
he pop-up centres are for people who feel fine and have no symptoms. No appointments are needed. Local people just walk in and ask for a test.
Districts with high numbers of Covid cases are being targeted. The aim is to detect infected people with no symptoms as they may be more likely to spread the virus.
Up to Thursday night, more than 1,500 people with no symptoms were found with the virus among the more than 50,000 people who dropped in to the centres. They were advised to self-isolate at home.
Mobile walk-in centres are set up by the National Ambulance Service in consultation with HSE community health teams. Each centre consists of two large tent structures with metal frames which can be erected in a few minutes. Each visitor spends about 20 minutes at a centre and gets two swabs taken, from the nose and throat.
People are informed of the results the next day.
Niamh O’Beirne, who is the national leader of testing and tracing for the HSE, told the Sunday Independent that around half of the people who tested positive developed Covid symptoms. Some of them may have had mild symptoms before testing but were not aware they had Covid.
Twelve mobile units have been purchased which enable tests to be set up in the heart of communities with big infection rates. Also, existing buildings within communities are being used for walk-in testing.
Some people with no symptoms can be “super spreaders”, Ms O’Beirne said.
Around 3.4pc of people tested in walk-in centres have tested positive for Covid. There were 14 walk-in centres operating on Thursday. In all, there are 35 different sites around Ireland that have served as walk-in centres. GAA clubs have hosted some of them.
The Sunday Independent visited two centres during the week in Celbridge, Co Kildare and Mulhuddart in Co Dublin and met people glad of the chance to get tested.
The centre in Celbridge was in the beautiful grounds of the country mansion Castletown House, which has been a popular haunt for dog walkers during the pandemic. Covid numbers in Co Kildare have made it one of the counties of concern to health chiefs.
Charlotte Lynch (37), who works in the financial sector, said she was “happy” to get a test locally. She spoke of being pregnant for the second time during the pandemic. Her first baby was born last June.
“I’m glad to get this test. I’m pro-vaccine but there are so many different rumours and opinions about the vaccines that it makes me a bit nervous and unsettled,” she said.
Also queuing in the yard of the mansion were locals Paula O’Brien (31) and her friend Leah O’Donoghue (24). Paula said she just wants to keep her family safe and the test will help.
“Eight members of my family had Covid. Their main symptoms were tiredness and exhaustion but they’re all OK now,” said Paula.
Taxi driver Davinder Marjara (60) was relieved to get a test. He had a lot of worries about catching Covid in the past year.
“My job is very risky and I stopped driving my taxi last January because I was very concerned about getting the virus,” he said.
“I have stopped and started driving according to the levels of Covid at the time. I was driving at Christmas but stopped when the figures went up. This test will give me peace of mind and I’m looking forward to the vaccine,” he said.
One of the HSE employees processing the personal details of patients was Louise Boles.
“We’ve been busy but the people are lovely,” she said.
For much of the pandemic she has been swabbing patients and working in administration at the huge testing centre at Citywest in Dublin, which has been testing 1,000 people a day in recent times.
Deirdre Kenny is the lead HSE person for Covid testing in Kildare, South Dublin and West Wicklow. She said the number of people with no symptoms who have tested positive proves anyone could be carrying the virus and not know it. If people let down their guard, there could be another spike in numbers, she said.
It was planned to move the pop-up centre from Celbridge to Newbridge for this coming week. The test centre in Mulhuddart was situated in the grounds of Saint Peregrines GAA Club. It seemed fitting as Saint Peregrine, an Italian born in 1260, is the patron saint of life-threatening illnesses.
The commander of the unit was Noel O’Reilly, who was working alongside his colleagues in the ambulance service, HSE staff, and private security guards.
He said the team was grateful for the assistance of four soldiers, who were “a godsend”. During our visit, Private Joey Heeney and Private Jason McConnon of the Dundalk-based 27th Battalion, dressed in full PPE, were swabbing patients’ airways.
Patients receive texts the next day if they are negative or a telephone call from their GP if they are positive.
Colm Megan, an assistant chief ambulance officer responsible for testing in North Leinster, said the new pop-up structures were highly portable and they can be deployed anywhere in the coming years as the need arises.
Each centre was identical and capable of testing up to 500 people a day. He welcomed the sight of younger people acting responsibly by walking in to get tested.
Local man Michael Connolly (75) said he had already received one vaccine jab and getting tested made him feel safer. The virus was a worry for him since the start of the pandemic. He said his daughter was a healthcare worker who contracted Covid and temporarily lost her sense of taste and smell.
Two friends arrived to be tested wearing their work overalls. Daniel Byrne (24) and Chris McEntaggart (38) are steel fabricators and they welcomed the chance to get a quick Covid test.
Chris said a couple of his friends had suffered sore throats when they had the virus. Daniel said the test gave him peace of mind, and he spoke of being fed up with the way the social lives of young people were so restricted.
Joining in some good-natured banter, he said: “It would be nice to have a night out and meet new people. I’m a bit sick of my mates by now.”