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'There is no benefit in rapid testing inter-county players,' as GAA to continue in Level 5

Professor Mary Horgan, who is part of the GAA’s Covid-19 advisory committee, discusses testing, matches in Level 5 and the low risk involved on the field.

Source: Off The Ball/YouTube

RAPID TESTING OF inter-county GAA players would be of no benefit unless it’s rolled out in the wake of a positive case, according to one of the country’s top professors and experts in infectious diseases.

Professor Mary Horgan, who is part of the GAA’s Covid-19 advisory committee, told Off The Ball AM today that “there is no benefit in doing rapid testing across inter-county players.”

A limited rapid testing programme has been recently introduced, and is available for inter-county teams to utilise if they feel it is necessary. It allows for tests to be carried out and results returned within 48 hours.

This has been recommended as the most appropriate approach for inter-county GAA as elite sport is set to continue through Level 5 restrictions, which come into place tomorrow night.

While there have been increased calls for mandatory regular testing of panels — like that in professional set-ups — off the back of the Louth captain Bevan Duffy’s comments on LMFM yesterday, The42 has learned that the current testing policy is not set to change at senior inter-county level.

And Horgan outlined the full situation in conversation with Ger Gilroy and Eoin Sheehan this morning, with the league set to conclude this weekend as focus switches to championship thereafter:

A testing strategy has been put in place. There is no benefit in doing rapid testing across inter-county players. That’s a screening test, it’s fraught with difficulties. There can be false positives, false negatives and it’s a point of time.

“The position of rapid testing would be to investigate if there was a player or backroom staff [member] that was positive, and rapid testing needed to be done in support of the public health investigation that might take place. 

“Other than that, there is no position for rapid, routine testing as a screening tool at this point in time. That’s in line with public health guidelines.”

Horgan, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, went on to explain that basically, unless there’s a positive case in the set-up, rapid testing is pointless.

Routinely screening [players] without any symptoms is not currently something that we would recommend at all. If there’s a case or a cluster, rapid testing would kick in at that time. This is the PCR testing. The other testing, the antigen testing is not available in this country yet but is undergoing validation.

“The best testing still is done on [the basis that] either you’ve got symptoms or you’re a close contact, as deemed by public health.

“So, the most accurate test at the moment is the PCR test and that’s the test that would be routinely available in the event of a player or a backroom staff being positive. Again, any sports organisation would be totally in line with the public health guidelines within the country.”

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covid-19-signage-at-training Covid signage at a GAA pitch. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Horgan, who works in Cork University Hospital, also delved deeper into the “robust structures” in place to protect those involved as sport continues in Level 5, stressing the minimal risk involved as matches continue.

“There’s never zero risk in anything in life but the risk is very low,” she explained, when asked about safety concerns going forward. “The structures in place have been absolutely always in line with public health guidelines.

“It was great that NPHET and the government supported it and gave derogation to elite sports, including inter-county games. Is it safe outdoors? Sports is always, always safer than any indoor activity, the risk is low.

“Young, healthy people tend not to get hospitalised or sick from this infection. You have to put all these things on the table and that was the decision of NPHET that generally, the risk is low.

To date the number of outbreaks associated with on-field play are so, so few — if any. The protocols for inter-county are very stringent, and there’s an onus on the players, like every person in the country. This is about human behaviour, this is about looking after ourselves and ensuring that we follow public health guidelines to avoid that situation.”

“From my involvement with the GAA, I’ve been really impressed with the efforts the Covid advisory group have put in and the efforts of the organisation to put robust structures in place,” she added.

“I think it’s really important for the health and wellbeing, not only of players but of the country, that we can sit and watch our sports, no matter what age you are. It’s something we always look forward to.”

Meanwhile, The42 understands that the GAA are working on match protocols with the Gaelic Players’ Association [GPA] and county boards to address recent issues raised. This comes after the GPA called for stricter protocols last week as the inter-county season resumed.

Elsewhere, many are calling on the GAA to fully clarify whether all inter-county fixtures, including those at underage level, can proceed as planned through Level 5.

A recent letter from Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly stated that just “senior inter-county games” could go ahead as new restrictions come in.

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Emma Duffy

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