Fewer than 3,000 people have been prescribed an antiviral pill that can prevent them becoming seriously ill with Covid-19, in spite of efforts to make it more widely available.
Just 2,860 doses of Paxlovid have been prescribed for use in Ireland so far, according to the latest figures from the HSE. Of these 85 per cent were prescribed by pharmacists in the community and 15 per cent in hospitals.
In contrast, millions of people in the US and UK have availed of the only preventative treatment on the market against Covid-19, though some experts in those countries still feel the treatment is being under-used.
Under recent changes to HSE rules, pharmacies can now order the product with normal deliveries but only on foot of a prescription. They are not allowed to order Paxlovid for stock purposes alone.
Initially use of the drug was confined to unvaccinated or immunocompromised patients at the highest risk of serious illness should they contract Covid-19. Initially infection also had to be confirmed by a PCR test before a person could receive a prescription for Paxlovid, which must be taken within five days of the appearance of symptoms.
Last August the HSE extended its use to cover most older people even if they are vaccinated. In another change a positive antigen test sufficed for prescription.
However, those changes have done little to increase uptake despite chief medical officer Prof Breda Smyth highlighting the utility of antivirals in protecting older people at risk of serious Covid infection. There were 116 Covid-related deaths last November and 86 in December.
The European Medicines Agency last week granted full marketing authorisation to Paxlovid, which previously had a conditional authorisation.
The pill is available to vaccinated people aged over 75, and vaccinated over-65s with additional health risks. These include obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and lung disease and other serious risk factors.
GPs receive a €55 fee for testing vulnerable patients with a view to prescribing Paxlovid.
Meanwhile, the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 has fallen to the lowest level in 18 months. On Sunday there were 163 patients with the disease in hospital, up from 151 on Saturday. Twenty-three of the patients were in intensive care units.
Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations are rising in the UK and some other European countries so another wave of infections with the disease may be likely here. There is no indication it will be any more serious than the last wave and, because flu infections have ebbed, the health service is unlikely to come under the same level of pressure as it did last month.
There were 109 hospital admissions with flu in the last week of January, six admissions to intensive care and no deaths.