Almost 1,000 patients caught Covid-19 in Irish hospitals last month

Vaccines will still offer protection against Kraken subvariant, says professor of experimental immunology

Almost 1,000 patients caught Covid-19 while in hospital last month as the level of the disease in circulation surged once more.

There were 228 hospital-acquired Covid-19 infections in the week up to Christmas, 283 in the preceding week and 146 and 174 in the first two weeks of December, according to an update from chief medical officer Prof Breda Smyth.

Hospitals remain under significant pressure, meanwhile, with the number of patients on trolleys on Wednesday virtually unchanged from the previous day.

There were 528 patients waiting for a bed on Wednesday morning, according to the count by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, down six on Tuesday. Cork University Hospital had the highest number at 57, but no patients was recorded as waiting for admission at hospitals in Beaumont, Tullamore and Mullingar.


In her latest report, Prof Smyth said vulnerable people should consider wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, such as social gatherings. She reiterated previous advice to wear masks on public transport and in healthcare settings. She said Covid-19 continues to circulate at significant levels while flu rates are “very high”. However, she said cases of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) are in decline.

Deaths from Covid-19 have remained broadly stable, though there is a lag in reporting.

Growth advantage

One case of the XBB.1.5 subvariant had been identified in Ireland in the week ending December 19th, according to Prof Smyth’s report. “Based on available data, this variant appears to have a growth advantage over previously circulating lineages,” she noted.

There is currently no data suggesting an emergence of new variants of concern in China, where cases have surged massively following the lifting of controls, the chief medical officer said.

Prof Kingston Mills, professor of experimental immunology in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, said the new, highly transmissible XBB.1.5 variant was “likely” to become the dominant strain in Ireland.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) said fewer than five cases of the subvariant, referred to as Kraken, were detected by genomic sequencing in the four weeks before Christmas. The variant has spread rapidly throughout the United States.

Prof Mills said although the latest variant is an offshoot of Omicron, it is “quite different” from its predecessor. He said vaccines would still offer protection, especially the bivalent variations that are updated versions of the earlier vaccines.

“It’s already in Ireland and the rest of Europe at a low level here right now, but it will increase and it’s likely to become the dominant variant here as well. The big issue around it is that it’s quite different to Omicron,” Prof Mills told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland. “People who’ve got infected with the original Omicron are less likely to be protected through immunity generated.”

Major internal incident stood down

After nine days, University Hospital Limerick (UHL) has stood down a “major internal incident” caused by unprecedented levels of overcrowding. However, day surgery in other UL Hospital Group facilities such as Nenagh, Ennis and St John’s hospitals remains cancelled as these sites provide surge capacity for unwell patients. Reductions in elective work at UHL and Croom hospital also remain in place as do visiting restrictions.

The group said extraordinary measures taken in hospitals and the community had helped to reduce the extreme overcrowding seen last week. However, all hospitals are operating above capacity and staff remain on high alert, it said.

The news of the emergence of the new variant in Ireland comes as the health service continues to be under significant pressure due to high levels of Covid-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Dr Lucy Jessop, director of public health at the HSE’s national immunisation office, called on parents to get the nasal flu vaccine for their children. Flu could be a very serious illness, with 700 children under the age of 15 having been admitted to hospital with the illness this winter, she told Newstalk Breakfast.

Overall, Dr Jessop said there had been a good uptake of the vaccine among the vulnerable with 1.1 million doses administered this winter, with the uptake rate running at 75 per cent among the over-55s.

The uptake of booster Covid vaccines was also good among the vulnerable, with 78 per cent of over-65s availing of the second booster and 44 per cent having received a third.

Dr Jessop said the booster vaccines offers better protection against new variants so it is important for people to get it as Covid-19 remains prevalent in the community.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times

Vivienne Clarke

Vivienne Clarke is a reporter