The Taoiseach has said almost half of the adult population has had the Covid-19 booster vaccine.
Micheál Martin said 49.9 per cent of adults or 37.4 per cent of the population had received their boosters.
In a tweet he said 303,000 vaccines had been given in the past three days and praised the work of staff and volunteers in vaccine centres, GPs and pharmacists.
The health service has been pushing to boost as many people as possible as the Omicron wave rises.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid said studies on the Omicron variant were welcome news but added there were always qualifiers and it was “really early days” with regard to evidence.
The key finding in Edinburgh research on Omicron was reduced hospitalisations with this variant, but the concern was the volume of cases, which could still put severe strain on hospitals.
The early evidence was positive, but it was still a highly transmissible virus, Mr Reid said on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland.
With 6,307 new cases announced on Wednesday evening, officials believe the Omicron variant is now beginning to show up in daily case numbers. Sources across Government expect that significant numbers of cases will be diagnosed in the next number of weeks – upwards of 10,000 a day.
As of Thursday morning the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 fell to 390 down from 429 on Wednesday.
The HSE’s chief clinical officer, Colm Henry, said even though early indications were that there was a reduction in hospitalisations from the Omicron variant, it was still unknown what level of hospitalisations would be likely to need intensive care treatment.
Dr Henry said there was some initial cause for optimism based on reports from South Africa that indicated the Omicron variant caused less severe symptoms. But the newer data had to be scrutinised, he said.
Efforts by the public in recent weeks had helped stabilise figures, but the numbers were going up again because of the Omicron variant, he warned. “We’ve learned a hard lesson about not acting early.”
Covid-19 would eventually become endemic, he said, adding regular vaccines will become a part of life. “It is endemic now, we are dealing with a variant that is highly transmissible.
“This is an extraordinary surge of a variant that only came to light in South Africa in late November. No system anywhere in the world could absorb the demands in that short time.”
Dr Henry has expressed concern about exhausted healthcare staff. He urged the public to “do your bit”–- to stay at home, reduce socialisation and get the booster vaccine - to help reduce cases.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show, Dr Henry said the number of staff absent from work in relation to Covid had reduced from 5,000 to 3,000.
However, he said he was concerned about staff who were exhausted and the constant vigilance under which they had to work, the time it took to don PPE gear, how they had to physically distance themselves. “It is very difficult.”
Earlier Mr Reid said it was his personal view the policy of “encouraging and cajoling” people to get vaccinated was the better approach.
Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast and RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, Mr Reid pointed out that 94 per cent of the population over the age of 18 had been vaccinated. “We’ve done extraordinarily well.”
However, he acknowledged that 54 pe rcent of the patients in ICU had not been vaccinated – “that’s from 6 per cent of the population.” It was important for people to come forward to be vaccinated to stop this “disproportionate impact”.
Every week there were 17,000 to 20,000 people coming forward for their first and second doses, and the HSE was continuing to work with vulnerable groups and NGOs in a bid to reduce vaccine hesitancy, he said.
Mr Reid said this time last year 87,000 PCR tests were carried out and that this year that figure was 220,000 and would continue to grow, probably to 300,000. On December 26th last year the first batch of 9,750 doses of vaccine arrived into the country; yesterday 109,000 doses were administered.
Meanwhile the Government is moving to exempt key workers in public services and utilities from self-isolation requirements in some circumstances as fears grow about the impact of the Omicron wave on essential services.
Mr Martin has asked officials to draw up “immediate contingency planning for the coming period, including risks associated with Covid-19- related absenteeism”, his spokesman said on Wednesday evening.
“Each sector will assess and plan to mitigate risks of transmission and absenteeism affecting critical services or infrastructure. The identification of critical workers/work areas will continue to inform close contact rules and any derogations which might apply,” the spokesman said.
There are already derogations in place within the health service for key staff, but Government sources said the Coalition wants to examine derogations for other key workers like gardaí, fire service personnel, prison officers and those involved in infrastructure and public utilities, such as water services and power supply.