Ireland is likely to "overcome" the Omicron wave of Covid-19 infections more quickly than earlier waves, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has forecast.
While January would be a “difficult” month due to infections and work absences, the number of virus patients in hospital would be lower than last winter, he told The Irish Times.
In an upbeat assessment of the current, record-breaking wave of cases, Mr Varadkar said Covid-19 infections were likely to be very high “for the next few days” and to peak “in the next week or so”.
“There will be an increase in the patient numbers in hospital and ICU but this won’t be as high as it was last winter because of immunity that has built up due to the vaccine programme and prior infection.”
With another 9,006 Covid-19 cases recorded on Tuesday, almost 40,000 people have tested positive since Christmas Day as the more transmissible Omicron variant consolidates its dominance in Ireland.
Hospital and ICU figures have remained relatively stable, but there was a jump of 60 new admissions to hospital on Tuesday, the biggest daily figure since January.
Infectious diseases consultant and National Public Health Emergency Team member Prof Mary Horgan said it was still too early to tell how big the current wave would be and it was likely to take another week to 10 days before its impact in hospitals became clear.
The number of cases recorded in recent days was “not a surprise” given how transmissible the Omicron variant was known to be, she noted.
It was important to distinguish between patients who were admitted because of Covid-19 and those who were diagnosed with the virus in hospital while being treated for other conditions, Prof Horgan said.
Mr Varadkar made a similar point: “There could be a lot of instances where people don’t get admitted with Covid but test positive for it while in hospital. This has always been true but will be even more the case now due to Omicron’s transmissibility.
“So it will be important to keep an eye on daily admissions as well as the total number in hospital to get a clear picture of what’s going on.”
There were still a “striking” number of unvaccinated patients being admitted to ICUs in the current wave, Prof Horgan added.
Asked if further restrictions were needed, she said that while Nphet would have to examine trends closely, people had “by and large” done what was asked of them by reducing contacts and cancelling events.
“We will overcome the Omicron wave and hopefully more quickly than prior waves,” the Tánaiste said.
“Increased vaccination, increased natural immunity, the new anti-viral oral medicines and the arrival of spring will ensure that. January will be a difficult month with a lot of pressure on hospitals and absence from work. It will be a challenge to manage it well.”
Health Service Executive chief executive Paul Reid said the virus was "running rife" and admitted the PCR testing system was "moving towards capacity". The HSE is increasing weekly testing capacity to 300,000 and will be able to send out up to 400,000 antigen tests to close contacts.
Mr Reid pointed out the testing system had a “diminished value” as a control measure at present, when rates of community transmission were so high.
But there were "early signs of hope" from GPs that Omicron may not be as severe as earlier variants, he told RTÉ Radio.
Latest figures showed 521 people with Covid-19 were being treated in hospital on Tuesday, an increase of 60 on the previous day’s total. This includes 92 people in ICU, an increase of one on the previous day.
Meanwhile, a number of health sources have expressed surprise at the statement of chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan on St Stephen's Day, in which he advised people not to socialise with other households and to "shop online where possible". One said the advice clearly conflicted with Government policy, which allows mixing with three other households.