Ireland is on track to have one of the highest uptakes in the world for Covid-19 vaccines, according to State chief medical officer Tony Holohan.
Keeping clinical and public health voices “to the fore” during the pandemic has helped maintain the trust and confidence of people along with compliance with infection control measures, he said.
This was now “playing out” through encouragingly high levels of uptake for vaccines.
Some 3.1 million vaccine doses have been administered in the Republic, including 2.2 million first doses. Some 26 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated and 57 per cent have had a first dose, latest figures show.
Dr Holohan was speaking as the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that insufficient numbers of people have been vaccinated in Europe to prevent a resurgence of the virus.
“While we should all recognise the progress made across most countries in the region, we must also acknowledge we are by no means out of danger,” said Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe.
“Vaccination coverage is far from sufficient to protect the region from a resurgence. The distance to go before reaching at least 80 per cent coverage of the adult population is still considerable.”
Infections in the Republic are at their lowest rate since last December, with case numbers under 300 a day on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, officials told a briefing on Thursday.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid said this may be due to fewer people coming forward for testing over the bank holiday weekend and case numbers are likely to rise somewhat.
With many older people vaccinated, cases are increasingly arising among unvaccinated younger people. Last week 80 per cent of infections occurred in people aged 44 or younger.
The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital has fallen further to 70, including 23 in intensive care. The largest hospital in the State, St James’s in Dublin, had no coronavirus patients on Thursday, compared to a peak of up to 130 last January, a milestone Mr Reid hailed as “remarkable”.
New self-referral centres for testing people are to be opened by the Health Service Executive. Members of the public will be able to attend the centres without the need for referral by a GP.
There are at present only four such self-referral centres, which were opened in response to problems caused by the cyberattack on the HSE’s IT system.
On Thursday, Dr Holohan was awarded an honorary fellowship by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) in recognition of his "outstanding" leadership during the pandemic.
In brief remarks after receiving the award, he described the past 18 months as “a time like no other” that no one in public health could have predicted.
The pandemic has affected every facet of life and tested even the most basic assumptions about living, he said.
“The people of Ireland have consistently responded to our public health advice. They have stayed at home, worn masks, washed hands and kept social distance whenever we asked.
‘Remarkable levels of compliance’
“It’s easy to forget that we have had remarkable levels of compliance from the outset . . . only through such high compliance have we managed to suppress infections.”
Praising the “exemplary” public service of healthcare professionals during the crisis, he said the reality for staff now must be exhaustion from their efforts, along with frustration at the mounting challenge posed by non-virus care and the various challenges posed by “long Covid”.
As chief medical officer, Dr Holohan chairs the National Public Health Emergency Team that has directed much of Ireland’s response to the pandemic. He has become a familiar figure in the public eye through his televised appearances at the team’s regular briefings on the virus.
The handling of pandemic will serve as Dr Holohan's legacy, notwithstanding his previous contributions to Irish healthcare, according to RCSI president Ronan O'Connell.
“Putting public health first, Dr Holohan has been transparent from the start, providing clear information which inspired trust and cohesion among a great majority of Irish people.”
RCSI chief executive Cathal Kelly said that under the chief medical officer's stewardship, "early and decisive action was taken, putting Ireland in a stronger position to manage the first wave of the virus than our neighbours to the east and the west".
“Since then, as we have moved through three waves, Dr Holohan has been steadfast and consistent in putting the health of Irish people first,” added Prof Kelly.
He thanked Dr Holohan for his service to the country and “the outstanding example of public service and vocation he has shown for the healthcare leaders of the future”.
Dr Holohan was appointed deputy State chief medical officer in 2001. He became chief in 2001, just as a serious public health crisis was starting when potentially harmful dioxins were found in Irish pork.