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Covid: Behind the scenes with the NI track and trace team

By Chris Buckler
BBC News NI

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image captionThe coronavirus track and trace team, which started work in March, has expanded from 30 to almost 250 people

The Public Health Agency says it is putting greater resources into discovering the source of outbreaks of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.

The coronavirus track and trace team, which started work in March, has been expanded from 30 to almost 250 people.

Their primary concern is to ensure people self-isolate if they've been diagnosed with the coronavirus or have been in contact with someone who has contracted the disease.

However, the agency says there is now a greater focus on enhanced tracing, to try to establish what types of places are most associated with clusters.

"Tracking and tracing will provide one source of information about where we are seeing clustering of infections," said Dr Philip Veal, who is the lead public health consultant for contact tracing.

"That will undoubtedly help the [Northern Ireland] Executive and others make decisions about businesses."

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Politicians at Stormont spent days deadlocked over whether to extend or relax coronavirus restrictions on pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and beauty salons.

image captionDr Philip Veal is the lead public health consultant for contact tracing

Dr Veal says ministers need to consider other issues including the affect on the economy and mental health.

However, he said there was data both globally and in Northern Ireland that suggested there was a link between some outbreaks and the hospitality industry.

"Most spread of coronavirus happens within households and estimates are around 70%," he said.

"Of the remainder, there is evidence that spread can be associated with settings where people gather together in large numbers, where alcohol is consumed and where individuals meet late at night.

"So that is very important to be aware of as decisions are made."

The Public Health Agency's tracing service currently operates seven days a week from County Hall in Ballymena, County Antrim.

The programme has taken over offices across two floors of the sprawling building.

The agency's tracers call everyone diagnosed with Covid in an attempt to gather information about anyone they have been in close contact with during the preceding seven days.

They are then sent a text message advising them to self-isolate for a period of two weeks.

Not everyone is pleased to receive a call and Shauna Armstrong, who is part of the tracing team, says people can be reluctant to provide them with the details they need.

"A lot of people feel shame over this rather than realising this is pandemic and this will happen," she says.

image captionShauna Armstrong, who is part of the tracing team, says people can be reluctant to provide the details they need

"And a lot of it is about people's work - are they going to be paid while they are off?

"I had one girl who was crying the whole time that she was on the phone with me."

The Public Health Agency is keen to emphasise that they are also there to provide support.

Teams of health professionals work at the centre alongside the tracing teams to offer advice where it is needed.

image captionNajla Basketfield works on the track and trace team

Tracers say they have spoken to people who have been breathless or in need of medical help.

"We get all sorts of reactions from people who are devastated because members of their families have passed away due to Covid or they have Covid themselves," says Najla Basketfield.

"For example in one case I rang a gentleman whose wife was in an intensive care unit and he was crying on the phone, so I arranged to ring him back again.

"Unfortunately, when I rang him back his wife had passed away.

"But this gentleman was still prepared to give me his close contacts because he said if he could protect another family, then at least he had helped others from having to go through the devastation he went through."

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