It has been a traumatic week for the community of Laois, Offaly and Kildare. It began with genuinely deep concerns over the restart of sporting fixtures and the possible spread of Covid-19 in the community.

Most of the people of Laois had heard the stories before lunchtime on Wednesday - claims that players in several teams involved in gaelic games activity last weekend had tested positive, and that dozens of others were being contacted for testing after being identified in the screening process, after a match went ahead involving somebody who had contracted the virus.

In fact, there was no "outbreak" in the GAA circle.

Laois County Board told RTÉ News it was aware of two positive cases last weekend in a club, which they said they believed to be a result of the players' place of work.

They said the club had liaised with the HSE and paused all activities and everyone else had been tested with results coming back negative but, by that stage, the story had been given legs in many parishes and by the time I hit the ground in Portlaoise on Wednesday one man told me, incorrectly as it later emerged, that an entire garda station has been closed down.

The rumour mill was flat out.

While all these GAA stories were circulating, a real Covid-19 emergency was actually developing in two towns in the midlands - and with devastating consequences for workers and their families.

80 workers tested positive at the Kildare Chilling Plant (Pic: Rolling news)

The Kildare chilling factory in Kildare town was the scene for one of the most serious outbreaks of the virus anywhere in the country with 80 workers testing positive, yet there was little or no media coverage of the cluster there until the very end of the week, and the wider public or even the factory's neighbours in Kildare town had no idea of the very serious scale of the cluster there.

As we have done on numerous occasions with other meat factories this summer, RTÉ News contacted the company seeking details of the extent of the problem the moment we heard of a problem, but no statement was forthcoming.

The confirmation of the fact that 80 workers had the virus actually came from the Government's own health Department on Friday evening. By that stage O'Brien Foods had already issued a very comprehensive outline of another outbreak at their plant in Timahoe.

In contrast to others, the company laid out a line-by-line detailed account of what had happened - an explanation that there had only been three cases of Covid-19 among the workforce for months, and that the vast majority of people who had tested positive had been asymptomatic - an even more worrying development in the way the virus can spread so easily considering the scale of the outbreak. 

Without O'Brien's co-operation, the media and the general community would never have been fully informed of the level of the threat this provided to the wider community.

Speaking to staff at many meat factories is practically impossible. The language barrier with many international workers is the first problem, but in other parts of the country this summer there has been another major impediment to getting accurate information from employees in some factories. Greg Ennis of SIPTU explained it on Friday.

The O'Brien Foods plant in Timahoe was the scene of an outbreak (Pic: Rolling News)

There was plenty of anecdotal evidence, he said, of workers heading to the Citywest Hotel over recent weeks for quarantine after contracting the virus, who were reluctant to even divulge information to the HSE screening teams there about where they lived, or what the scale of their contacts were.

Mr Ennis put this down to fear among some staff that, by confirming how many people they lived with or what their living conditions were, they would in some way be putting their own future here in Ireland under some doubt - as if workers who gave the important information were going to be sent packing by the state or somebody else and told they could never work here again.

Representatives of the meat industry have repeatedly denied any such environment of fear exists within their plants.

The problem for the HSE and the people trying to battle the spread of Covid-19 is that there is clearly a perception among many workers that it may well be better to stay silent or perhaps not even report their symptoms of the virus at all to the authorities or their employers if they become unwell - and that development is surely the most concerning and potentially damaging issue of all that has emerged from the outbreaks at factories.

I speak from direct experience of meeting and talking to workers in other parts of the country with these perceptions and fears in their minds this past summer.

I've been texted and rang by workers who had fears they had, or were about to contract, the virus - yet none were available to go before a TV camera and tell their stories. This is something that is crucial if the facts are to be established and their accounts corroborated. 

These fears are not healthy for either staff or management at meat factories.

Owners tell us repeatedly the welfare of their workforce is paramount, and they communicate with their employees at all times when the virus hits.

The HSE says it is absolutely critical that workers come forward as soon as they experience any symptoms and get medical attention.

In recent weeks those of us covering the story have been asked repeatedly why we are not seeing and hearing workers' stories on our TV screens and why the meat companies involved are not being interviewed on camera.

The reality is we are asking for individual company owners to go before our cameras week after week to answer questions about outbreaks and clusters that have occurred and have been confirmed by the HSE.

To date the individual company owners have not been available to do so.

Their representative group does make itself available but the local communities involved want to hear from local factory owners - and have their own concerns dealt with at this level. 

On Monday, Greg Ennis and the SIPTU officials who represent up to 6,000 workers in the meat industry will meet with Meat Industry Ireland representatives in Dublin. These issues will come up again for discussion.

We will wait to see how this situation will then evolve, because getting early and accurate information out to the public on the spread of Covid-19 remains absolutely crucial if the virus is to be contained.

As the first three counties in the country are shut down again, there is clearly a need to continue this focus and redouble all our efforts.