Omicron disruption of healthcare, pharmacies and legal services worsens

Tentative optimism as to variant’s limited capacity to harm as situation stays serious

Dozens of  ambulances and crews from the voluntary sector have made themselves available to serve acute hospital patients. As of Thursday, 260 National Ambulance Service staff were absent due to Covid. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Dozens of ambulances and crews from the voluntary sector have made themselves available to serve acute hospital patients. As of Thursday, 260 National Ambulance Service staff were absent due to Covid. Photograph: Laura Hutton

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Disruption caused by measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 is intensifying, amid “unsustainable” pressures on some services as the Omicron wave sweeps the country.

Despite this, there is growing optimism among public health officials over the variant’s limited capacity to cause severe disease and death, after a meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on Thursday said to be “generally upbeat”.

Even amid tentative optimism, the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) said the situation remained serious with further pressure on health services expected. There are also concerns that compliance with restrictions may slip amid impressions that Omicron is more mild, and some concern about over-30s not demonstrating sufficient enthusiasm for the booster.

Doctors have warned the Government that their stocks of vaccines may go out of date, which will likely prompt a push next week to get those aged 20-40 to go for a booster.

With record levels of cases, more services are being impacted by staffing shortages.

On Friday, the Psychiatric Nurses’ Association said the latest surge had resulted in the closure or curtailment of some services, a “huge and unsustainable” reliance on overtime and staff goodwill to maintain rosters, and staff being exposed to unsafe working environments.

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
255 29

Staff shortages

Peter Hughes, general secretary of the association, said the situation was very serious and would “become unsustainable if the current staffing situation continues or worsens in any way”.

“The pressures being experienced are coming on top of historic staff shortages throughout our mental health services and which have left the provision of services stretched to their limits,” he said.

Darragh O’Loughlin, secretary general of the Irish Pharmacy Union, said the Covid crisis had resulted in “significant pressures” in the sector.

“Each pharmacy will strive to maintain services to patients and the public, but reduced hours and temporary closures cannot be ruled out.”

Dozens of additional ambulances and crews from the voluntary sector have made themselves available to serve acute hospital patients from Friday, following an appeal from the Health Service Executive. As of Thursday, 260 regular National Ambulance Service staff were absent due to Covid.

Liam O’Dwyer, secretary general of the Irish Red Cross, told The Irish Times that on Friday seven of its 93 ambulances, crewed by qualified emergency medical technician staff, were required to address shortfalls. Further assistance has been made available through Order of Malta and St John Ambulance volunteers.

Courts and prisons

Meanwhile, the “unprecedented” number of judges, lawyers and witnesses unable to attend courthouses because of Covid-19 is to cause “some disruption” to court sittings over the coming two weeks, it has been announced.

Elsewhere, the Irish Prison Service has said all physical family visits will be temporarily suspended from January 10th until January 24th due to widespread community transmission of the virus.

It is understood that discussions at Nphet focused more on mapping a route out from current restrictions rather than more measures before the end of the month. There is an expectation among senior health officials that revised guidance on removing the need to isolate for close contacts will be forthcoming from the ECDC next week. Sources believe contacts may be asked to take antigen tests or wear higher-grade masks.

Amid ongoing pressure on the testing system, Government sources indicated moves were being considered to allow people upload the results of an antigen test online, rather than seeking a confirmatory PCR test.

Another 21,926 confirmed cases of Covid were announced on Friday, with 936 people in hospital with the disease and 84 in ICU.

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