A further 13 deaths and 738 new cases of Covid-19 were reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on Saturday.
This brings the total number of deaths in the State from Covid-19 to 4,313 since the onset of the pandemic, and the total number of confirmed cases of the disease here to 218,980.
Ten of the deaths occurred in February, one occurred in January, one occurred in October and one date of death remains under investigation.
The Department of Health said the median age of those who died was 81 years, and the age range of those who died was 55-92 years.
The State’s seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 people has dropped to 97.3, the first time it has fallen below 100 since December 22nd. The 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 is 215.8.
Of the new cases, 311 were in Dublin, 54 in Limerick, 36 in Cork, 34 in Offaly, 33 in Donegal and the remaining 270 cases are spread across 20 other counties.
The median age of the cases is 32, while 71 per cent are aged under 45 years.
As of 8am on Saturday, there were 550 Covid-19 patients in hospital, of which 135 were in intensive care (ICU). Over the previous 24 hours, there had been 27 additional hospitalisations.
As of Wednesday, 391,355 doses of Covid-19 vaccine had been administered in the State. Some 254,948 people have received their first dose, while 136,407 have received their second dose.
On Saturday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin urged people to continue to observe the Government Covid-19 guidelines.
“It is important to stick to the guidelines. I know it is difficult for people – it is a very long lockdown, but as we roll out the vaccination programme we give greater protection to the most vulnerable and our most senior citizens which prevents them from getting sick and prevents mortality,” Mr Martin told Cork’s 96FM during a visit to a vaccine centre at the Munster Technological University.
Mr Martin said it made sense to seek to drive down Covid-19 numbers in March. “We do not want hospitals going back to where they were in January. Likewise, what we reopen now we want to keep open. We do not want to be going back and closing sectors again if we can avoid it. Hopefully this will put us on a steady track.”
Mr Martin declined to predict what will happen after April 5th, the date to which current lockdown restrictions are being extended, and said the Government will have to see how the reopening of schools, a staggered process that is commencing on Monday, goes.
Also on Saturday, the chair of the State’s Covid-19 vaccination taskforce, Prof Brian MacCraith, said the only limitation to the rollout of the vaccine will be supply, with close to half a million vaccine doses expected to have been administered by the end of next week.
Prof MacCraith also said the taskforce was informed at “very late notice” of two changes to vaccine deliveries from AstraZeneca this week and next week.
However, Prof MacCraith told RTÉ radio’s Saturday with Katie Hannon “this is not a reduction in deliveries, this is a rebalancing by AstraZeneca themselves”.
“From next weekend into the following week, we’ll be able to recover completely what has been lost,” he said.
“The net overall effect is close to zero because it’s a reordering of the [delivery] schedule rather than a reduction, but very frustrating for ourselves and very frustrating for all of those waiting for the vaccine.”
Prof MacCraith said the infrastructure and the resources are there to vaccinate 1 million people a month in quarter two of this year, with the potential for 500,000 people to be vaccinated every week in quarter three.
He said that as we move to larger volumes of vaccine deliveries, the large Covid-19 vaccination centres will be operating 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and could do up to 35,000 vaccinations per week. He said 37 mass vaccination centres have been identified across the country, with 11 of those, such as the Helix in DCU, classified as large.
Vaccinations to date
Prof MacCraith said almost 400,000 vaccine doses had been administered up to last Wednesday, which includes 150,000 in long-term care facilities, more than 200,000 to frontline healthcare workers and almost 30,000 to over-85s.
He said the aim is to complete first-dose vaccination of over-85s by the end of this coming week. He also reiterated that a specific subgroup of people aged 16-69 with medical conditions that put them at high risk of severe illness or death from Covid-19 have been moved up the vaccine priority list and said they will begin to be vaccinated from March 8th. These include some cancer patients, those suffering from kidney disease, and the immunocompromised.
Prof MacCraith said the HSE was working to identify these cohorts and “the best way of providing the most suitable vaccination location for them”.
He also said that he was aware a number of GP practices had experienced “operational issues regarding ordering and delivery [of vaccines], particularly in rural areas”.
“Everyone involved with the programme is disappointed that this has happened,” he said.
Prof MacCraith said the HSE had been “working intensively” with the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) and the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) during the week to “put things to right” in this regard and set up a new GP order support team.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid said in a tweet that "we are winning, it's just not over yet".
“Our healthcare teams are exhausted. But getting their vaccination & the great signs of it reducing transmission is giving us all a second wind,” he tweeted.
Less stringent requirements
Mr Reid’s comments came after it emerged healthcare and other workers who have been infected with Covid-19 will face less stringent self-isolation requirements after they have recovered from the disease, as part of a bid to ease pressure on the health service.
Under a move approved by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), these workers will in future be considered to be immune for six months after contracting Covid-19, rather than the current three-month limit.
In future, any such workers who have previously contracted the virus will not have to self-isolate if, up to six months after recovering from Covid-19, they are ruled a close contact of someone confirmed as having Covid-19.
It is hoped the change in policy would help ease the pressure on the health service, which has faced manpower challenges due to staff falling ill or having to self-isolate because they have been a close contact of a Covid-19 case.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said the HSE is reviewing relevant policy in light of this recommendation from Nphet.