Almost 6,400 healthcare staff are off work due to coronavirus as hospitals face into their most difficult week on record, with the third peak of the virus imminent.
Those unable to work due to infection or being contacts of a case include 2,500 nurses, 1,500 patient care staff, 600 health and social care professionals and 400 doctors, according to the latest HSE figures.
Massive levels of enforced absenteeism have forced the closure of wards in many hospitals and the curtailment of non-essential services, but Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly insisted yesterday hospitals will be able to cope.
The health service has sufficient staff, along with personal protective equipment, ventilators and oxygen to treat the peak of severely ill virus patients expected shortly, he said.
The Defence Forces have been deployed to three nursing homes in recent days to help ease staffing pressures, following an appeal from the HSE.
A Defence Forces spokesman confirmed more than 25 soldiers had been deployed to nursing homes in Ballincollig and Douglas, Co Cork, and Ennis, Co Clare.
Admissions of coronavirus patients to hospital and ICU continue to slow significantly as the lockdown continues, while new case numbers are falling, though not as fast as might have been expected given the level of restrictions in place.
The number of patients with symptoms attending GPs, a key indicator of future trends, has fallen 70 per cent over the past fortnight, according to survey data collected from hundreds of family doctors.
GPs are seeing an average of three to four suspected coronavirus patients a day, compared to 10 at the peak of the current wave and less than one in early December, according to Dublin doctor Shane McKeogh. While numbers were coming down, he said, a “ripple effect” was slowing progress, with many entire households becoming infected.
The number of hospitalised patients is expected to exceed the 2,000-mark today, though daily admissions have now fallen for four days in a row.
There were 196 coronavirus patients in ICU last night, up five on the previous day.
A further 13 deaths of coronavirus patients were reported last night, along with 2,944 cases, the lowest daily figure since New Year’s Day.
Mr Donnelly said on RTÉ the coronavirus surge in hospitals will peak “in the next week or two” and the hospital system would continue “to be under very significant pressure for the next two weeks”.
He said there was surge capacity of 350 critical care beds with deals in place with the private hospitals for 40 or 50 beds.
The Minister confirmed he had asked the HSE and Government to look at getting the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in place in advance of the vaccine being approved. With European drug regulators due to consider authorising this vaccine on January 29th, Irish officials want to have supplies ready to go here rather than wait for delivery.
But Mr Donnelly said “there are regulatory issues” and they had to have the cooperation of the company itself.
The HSE has issued new guidance on giving the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to frail older people following safety concerns expressed by Norwegian authorities.
It is “not appropriate” to vaccinate people if their expected duration of life is less than that for the vaccine to take effect and if their overall care is focused on comfort and dignity, it has advised.
The vaccination programme will focus this week on long-term residential facilities with the aim of giving a first dose to all staff and residents by the end of next weekend. Vaccination of healthcare workers is being paused this week, though the aim is to have 70,000 healthcare workers and 70,000 in care facilities inoculated by next Sunday.