Covid-19 numbers have stabilised but at "an extremely high level" presenting a "huge risk" to the health service heading into the winter period, HSE chief executive Paul Reid has said.
He told the HSE’s weekly Covid-19 briefing that the number of people in hospital with the disease had fallen 8 per cent to 547 in a week, while the number of critically ill in intensive care units had declined 11 per cent in a week. But these numbers were “still too high,” he added.
The disease was having a “highly disproportionate impact” on the healthcare system and the HSE was entering December “on high alert” with Christmas approaching, he said.
Dr Colm Henry, the HSE's chief clinical officer, said that an emerging trend of declining case numbers among older ages who had received vaccine booster doses was a "cause for hope."
Among those receiving boosters, case numbers were down 15 per cent in a week among the over-85s, 19 per cent among 75- to 84-year-olds and 8 per cent among 65- to 74-year-olds.
There has been a “sharp drop” in hospitalisation rates among these older groups, including a 30 per cent decline in hospital admission among those aged between 65 and 74.
In contrast, Dr Henry said there had been a “troubling rise” in the number of cases in children and young people aged up to 18, with infections increasing by almost 12 per cent in a week.
Mr Reid said the unvaccinated make up 48 per cent of Covid-19 patients in hospital. Almost four in every five people aged between 19 and 40 in hospital were unvaccinated.
He said the detection of the first case of the new Omicron variant this week “probably comes as no surprise” and the “immediate concern” was whether the variant would lead to higher hospitalisations, sickness levels and ICU admissions heading into winter.
Damien McCallion, the HSE’s national lead for testing, tracing and vaccinations, said that “huge numbers” were still going through the Covid-19 testing system.
He acknowledged there were parts of the country where test appointments were not available on certain days due to the pressure from the high infection rates.
The HSE is increasing testing capacity to 245,000 a week by the end of December from the 223,000 PCR laboratory tests carried out over the past seven days.
Three testing centres have opened in Athlone, Co Westmeath and Leopardstown and Swords in Co Dublin and six "pop-up" sites in Tuam, Co Galway; Rathdrum, Co Wicklow; Drogheda, Co Louth; Carlow, Navan, Co Meath and south Kildare to cover areas with "significant demand" for tests.
The HSE has completed 880,000 booster and third doses with 215,000 completed in the last week through appointments and walk-ins at more than 30 vaccination clinics.
About 85 per cent of the country’s 161,000 people aged in their 80s have been boosted, 74 per cent of the 336,000 people in their 70s and just 19 per cent of 470,000 people in their 60s.