Nearly 3,900 hospital staff absent from work during final week of January due to Covid

HSE says emergency departments are seeing major rises in number seeking treatment for virus

Nearly 3,900 hospital staff were absent from work during the final week of January because of the spread of Covid-19, the HSE has said.

Some 3,899 hospital staff, including 2,271 people working in acute services, were unable to attend work between January 22nd-28th due to Covid-related issues, according to data released by the HSE to The Irish Times.

A HSE spokeswoman said emergency departments were seeing “significant increases” in the number of patients seeking treatment for Covid-19, but also noted that Covid-19 staff absences were on a “continuous downward trend” and had fallen more than 50 per cent from the peak levels reported last month.

There were 633 patients receiving treatment for Covid-19, including 73 ICU patients, on Sunday evening, February 6th. This marks a relatively small drop on the 682 Covid-19 patients recorded the previous Sunday, on January 30th.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid said in mid-January that about 15,000 healthcare workers were currently absent from work, largely due to Covid-19.

HSE guidance for healthcare workers who contract Covid-19, updated on January 27th, now states that asymptomatic healthcare professionals who have tested positive for the virus are exempt from restricting their movements unless they develop symptoms. Healthcare workers who test positive and have symptoms must isolate and not attend work for a full seven days.

Action plan

The HSE says it has been working on its Waiting List Action Plan since October to try and mitigate the impact on patient care in the State’s hospitals of the pandemic and last year’s cyberattack on the health executive. As a result, outpatient and GI scope waiting lists were reduced “considerably” in the final quarter of 2021, it said.

However, doctors have continued to raise concerns about the lack of available staff in hospitals amid continued pandemic-related disruption, including Dr Liqa Ur Rehman, a senior paediatric registrar based in the west of Ireland, who tweeted last week that he had had to cancel his leave to cover a staff shortage. "Who says it's over?" he asked in the tweet, referring to the pandemic.

Dr Ur Rehman told The Irish Times that healthcare workers who are giving up their annual leave to cover staffing shortages feel “abandoned” by the Government and said stronger efforts are needed to remind the general public that the pandemic is not over.

He said most healthcare workers were blindsided by the Government’s decision to lift restrictions so quickly last month. “We are emotionally and physically exhausted. There were staffing problems already over Christmas and new year and we never recovered from that crisis. The Government lifted restrictions all of a sudden without taking into account these staff shortages and the army of healthcare workers still fighting the battle against this virus.

“This has all happened so quickly, it’s been very difficult for hospital management to arrange replacements for people. We’re very concerned about all this.”

‘Misinformation’

Dr Ur Rehman believes “misinformation” spreading across Twitter and the internet that the pandemic has ended is causing complacency and leading some people to believe that vaccination is no longer necessary.

Covid-19 is “not a common cold, it can damage any system of the body”, he said. “People are now thinking if they get the infection it will be mild or that they will develop immunity. But we are now seeing children getting reinfected within four weeks with a subvariant of Omicron. This is not the right approach at all.”

He also warned of a “lack of awareness around long Covid in Ireland” and said the Government has failed to carry out a comprehensive information campaign on how safe the vaccine is for children aged between five and 11. “Parents still have a lot of questions that haven’t been answered. They [the Government] need to send a message into the community that vaccination is beneficial for the whole system.”