The general rollout of a second booster vaccine against Covid-19 to people aged 65 and over will begin from Friday, the Health Service Executive (HSE) has announced.
The rollout of a second booster to people aged 12 and over with weakened immune systems has also begun.
Appointments for second boosters can be booked online for administration at HSE vaccination centres, while some GPs and pharmacies will start providing them in the coming weeks.
The provision of second boosters to older people and the immunocompromised follows a recommendation from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee.
"People being recommended this second booster are those most at risk of severe illness from Covid-19. It is important you get your second booster to help maintain your protection from becoming seriously ill or needing hospital treatment if you catch the virus," said HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry.
New figures show the number of confirmed Covid-19 infections fell by about 40 per cent last week as the latest wave of the pandemic continued to ebb.
Between April 10th and April 17th, there were 11,803 PCR-confirmed cases reported to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), down 41.5 per cent on the 20,169 recorded the previous week. The highest percentage of PCR-notified cases last week was in the 35-44 age group (20.7 per cent).
A total of 55,402 PCR tests were performed, of which 23 per cent were positive.
Most people under-55 with Covid-19 symptoms are not required to take a PCR test, but are asked to notify the HSE of positive results obtained using antigen tests. A total of 15,141 such positive antigen tests were reported on the HSE portal last week, down 38.4 per cent on the previous week.
Covid-19 incidence fell in all age groups, but remains highest among those aged 85 and over.
A further 1,426 PCR-confirmed cases and 1,609 notifications of positive antigen tests were reported on Thursday, the Department of Health said. A total of 654 patients with Covid-19 were in hospital, the lowest figure since early March. This included 37 patients in intensive care, a figure as low as on March 13th and lower than any other day since last August.
The HPSC said 15 deaths of people with Covid-19 were reported last week. A total of 6,993 people with the disease have died in the State during the pandemic, including 24 healthcare workers.
Despite the fall in Covid-19 and flu cases, hospital emergency departments remain under pressure, with 442 patients waiting for admission on Thursday, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) said.
With 126 patients on trolleys on Thursday morning, University Hospital Limerick set a new record for overcrowding in any single hospital, the union said. This figure was more than one-quarter of all patients on trolleys nationwide. The hospital had 58 patients with Covid-19 on Wednesday evening, more than any other.
The INMO said bed management in the hospital was “completely broken” and called for an emergency plan to be activated.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health has announced that Covid-19 testing sites are to close across the North from Friday and people will no longer need to take a PCR test if they have symptoms of the disease.
"If you have symptoms you should take a lateral flow test instead. These tests continue to be available free of charge from over 500 community pharmacies across Northern Ireland or by ordering online," the department said.
People who do not have symptoms were no longer advised to take a lateral flow test unless caring for someone at risk from the disease; visiting a higher-risk setting such as a hospital, hospice or care home; or advised to do so by a doctor or health professional, it added.
“The Public Health Agency’s contact tracing service will also change to focus on providing public health advice to positive cases and members of their household. Those who test positive should continue to report their result. Contact tracing in the wider community will cease from April 22nd.”