Hospital overcrowding surges on first day of new year as flu and Covid-19 cases spread

Monaghan GP reports rise in patients attending with respiratory complaints since Christmas

Hospitals are bracing themselves for further increases in patient attendances this week as the holiday season comes to an end. Photograph: iStock

Hospital overcrowding increased sharply on the first day of the new year as flu and Covid-19 cases continued to rise.

Hospitals are bracing themselves for further increases in patient attendances this week as the holiday season comes to an end.

However, with trolley numbers so far running at about half the level recorded last year, a repeat of last year’s record overcrowding crisis is not expected. There were 80 per cent fewer patients on trolleys over Christmas compared to the previous Christmas.

Attendance at emergency departments remained relatively high throughout the Christmas period, and GP out of hours services were also very busy, the Health Service Executive said. “High levels of respiratory illness continue to circulate, and we are seeing increasing numbers of patients attending our EDs and subsequently being admitted due to respiratory symptoms.”

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An expected 3,000 cases of respiratory illness in the coming weeks and the re-opening of GP surgeries on Tuesday will place further pressure on hospitals, it added.

There were 229 patients waiting for admission to a hospital bed on New Year’s Day, up from 165 the previous day, according to the HSE’s TrolleyGar count. Some 182 of these were boarded in hospital emergency departments and 47 were on wards.

New Year’s Day 2023 saw 454 patients on trolleys, and numbers increased to record levels in the days that followed.

The HSE has warned that flu and Covid-19 cases will continue to rise for a number of weeks, putting hospitals under further pressure.

Hospitalisations of patients with Covid-19 are running at slightly over half the level seen a year ago. There were 358 patients with Covid-19 in hospital on New Year’s Day, compared to 678 on the same day in 2023.

There were 11 patients with Covid-19 in ICU on New Year’s Day, compared to 29 on the same day a year earlier.

Nonetheless, the number of Covid-19 hospitalisations has increased significantly over the past month, as has the percentage of positive tests recorded.

Flu infections were increasing sharply before Christmas, while RSV cases were in decline from very high levels. Updated figures for both viruses were not published over the holiday period.

Monaghan GP Illona Duffy said her practice had its busiest week after Christmas, with three doctors seeing over 100 patients last Friday.

“It’s almost all respiratory. There’s a definite rise in flu cases, RSV is increasing among kids and Covid-19 is still there.”

“Some of the children are sicker with RSV, in line with what the HSE is saying, and require hospitalisation.”

Anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms with high temperatures should restrict their movements and take a Covid-19 test, she recommends.

Vaccine fatigue has contributed to a drop in the number of people with recent flu or Covid-19 shots, she noted.

Separately, some parents anxious about their children’s condition are seeking medical advice prematurely, before the progression of the illness can be established, she said. “So long as the child isn’t serious, it’s often better to wait a day or two before going to the GP.”

With many people reporting sinus congestion, she advises over-the-counter decongestant remedies and nasal rinsing to ease the problem.

Entering the fifth year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation said the virus continues to evolve and a new phase is beginning with the XBB and BA.2 sublineages circulating and the HN. 1 variant becoming dominant.

Senior WHO scientist Dr Maria van Kerkhove said she was worried that Covid-19 was still a global health threat, circulating at the same time as other pathogens such as flu and RSV.

“Cases and hospitalisations for Covid-19 have been on the rise for months. Hospitals in many countries are burdened and overwhelmed from Covid and other pathogens, and deaths are on the rise.

“I’m worried that too many think Covid is not something to worry about, that they need a new variant with a Greek letter to take this virus seriously.

“I’m worried we so badly want to move on that governments, many of whom have new leadership and have moved on, will forget the overflowing hospitals, the tents in parking lots for the sick, refrigerated trucks serving as morgues, burial grounds, fire pyres, exhausted health workers.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.