Covid-19 detected in almost half of people tested

Immunologist says focus should be on hospitalisations rather than case numbers

Covid-19 is being detected in almost one in every two people being tested for the virus as the Omicron variant becomes more widespread.

Almost 50 per cent of people being tested for the disease were found to be positive on Monday, as demand for PCR tests reached unprecedented levels in the post-Christmas period.

The positivity rate rose steadily over the Christmas period, from 32 per cent reported on Christmas Day to 39.8 per cent on St Stephen’s Day to 49.7 per cent on Monday.

Hospital Report

Close to 40,000 people a day are being swabbed for Covid-19 in PCR tests after dipping to 13,000-25,000 a day over Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day.


All 41 test centres were open as normal on Monday.

The National Public Health Emergency Team reported a further 6,735 cases of the disease, putting the seven-day average at 8,726, almost double the average of 4,735 of a week ago, a rapid increase attributable to the more transmissible Omicron variant.

The HSE continued to advise anyone with a positive antigen test result to self-isolate by staying in their room and to seek a PCR test.

While no PCR test appointments were available on Monday afternoon on the HSE’s online portal, the health service advised people to check for appointments regularly as slots held back for GPs or close contact referrals can be released over the course of the day.

The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 rose by 35 to 461 people. There were 68 new hospitalisations and 28 people discharged over the previous 24 hours.

The number of critically ill patients in intensive care units remained unchanged at 91.

Hospital beds

The HSE has almost 1,500 general hospital beds available to prepare for any potential surge.

Hospitalisation numbers are being watched closely as early data from healthcare systems in Britain, South Africa and Denmark suggests that while the Omicron variant is considerably more contagious than earlier mutations, it does not appear to be as virulent.

Paul Moynagh, professor of immunology at Maynooth University, said there was a need to move away from focusing on Covid-19 case numbers and to look instead at hospital admissions because the Omicron variant appeared to be causing less severe disease in people.

“As we have seen in other countries, case numbers get to really high levels and now, thankfully, the severity is decreasing because the variant is probably a little bit less severe. The thing to focus on is the effects on hospitalisation,” he said.

He said Omicron appeared to be a milder type of virus than Delta, the strain that was previously dominant in Ireland and caused the fourth wave of infections in the autumn.

Prof Moynagh said the Omicron variant was "incredibly difficult" to model because there were so many uncertainties around its effect on a highly vaccinated population with high levels of protection from both vaccines and past infection.

“In adapting to become really very efficient in terms of transmission, perhaps it has lost its ability to cause disease,” he said.

In Northern Ireland, bars, cafes and restaurants returned to table service on Monday as new Covid-19 restrictions came into force to curb the spread of the Omicron infections.

A maximum of six people are limited to a table, and dancing is prohibited, though weddings are exempt. It is advised that only three households should mix.

No new Covid-19 figures were released for Northern Ireland on Monday.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent