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*Photograph: Sean Curtin / True Media

Mass testing is to take place at the University of Limerick following a fresh outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

HSE Mid-West Community Healthcare and the National Ambulance Service will carry out the testing which is being facilitated by UL in partnership with Public Health Mid-West, to help manage the current outbreak among the student population and to prevent further transmission of COVID-19.

It follows an increase in COVID-19 cases among students in the Castletroy area of Limerick city, associated with household outbreaks in off-campus student accommodation.

All students are encouraged to avail of the free mass testing this week by the Department of Public Health Mid-West in order to protect yourself, your household and your community. Students who availed of the mass testing earlier this month should also register for a test, as infection since being tested is still possible.

“We have seen evidence of multiple household clusters arising out of continued social mixing. Since the B117 variant has become the dominant strain in Ireland, single cases are escalating quickly to whole households being infected and then quickly spreading to others,” a spokesperson outlined.

Dr Marie Casey, Specialist in Public Health Medicine, said Public Health Mid-West has noticed a series of behavioural patterns that are contributing factors to the increase in cases in the area. She said that students have a unique risk profile as they live in large households, travel to and from their family homes, and may have a part-time job. Because many will present no symptoms, the level of risk multiplies when they breach their social bubble or socialise with others outside their household.

Continued small and large social gatherings are occurring in the vicinity of the college, the Department of Public Health Mid-West stated. Dr Casey outlined, “Our contact tracers are seeing new positive cases identifying an excessive number of close contacts outside their households. This is problematic as, largely speaking, your only close contacts should be your own household. We are also noticing that some people are building wider ‘social bubbles’, whereby some people within the same household are exposed to separate social settings, such as visiting partners or classmates.

According to Dr Ronan Ryder, Director of the Student Health Centre at UL, the service referred fewer than five patients for testing this day two weeks ago, but this rose to 50 on Monday. “I really feel that the vast majority of the student population have done exceptionally well to protect themselves since Christmas. However, when case numbers start to rise, it does take some time to bring them back under control, so I am encouraging all students in the Castletroy area to avail of testing, and to avoid household visits and socialising so that we can manage this disease in our community.

“If you are a student in the area, and you are concerned about symptoms or you are a close contact, your first port of call should be the Student Health Centre or your own GP. The test is free for everybody,” Dr Ryder said and noted that even if phone lines are busy, every student will be accommodated, and that their service will be open every Saturday and Sunday over the next two weeks to facilitate the increased level of demand.

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