Health officials warn of strain on hospitals but Covid-19 admissions remain low

Pattern of infection in coming weeks ‘really quite uncertain’, says Prof Philip Nolan

Prof Philip Nolan said the rise in hospital and ICU admissions was ‘far less’ than ‘if we didn’t have so much of the population protected through vaccination’. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Prof Philip Nolan said the rise in hospital and ICU admissions was ‘far less’ than ‘if we didn’t have so much of the population protected through vaccination’. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

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Health officials have warned of mounting strain on hospitals as coronavirus infections increase, although the absolute number of admissions remains below previous surges of the disease.

Prof Philip Nolan, chairman of the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (Nphet) epidemiological modelling group, reported rising intensive care admissions but said the rise in hospital and ICU admissions was “far less” than “if we didn’t have so much of the population protected through vaccination”.

Dr Nolan said the expected pattern of infection in coming weeks was “really quite uncertain”. The background of exponential virus growth earlier in July “may or may not be stabilising” but the increase in hospital and intensive care admissions tracked the rising rate of infection.

While there was one intensive care admission every two days toward the end of June, Dr Nolan said the ICU admission rate in the past week was approaching three per day.

There were 152 people in hospital yesterday. The figure contrasts 1,949 during the January peak. There were 333 inpatients at the start of November 2020 and 862 in April 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic.

But admissions are again rising fast.

“We’re seeing on average 26 per day admitted to hospital in the last seven days and 30 today. You can see that that’s very significantly up, pretty much double what it was two weeks ago,” Dr Nolan told reporters at the Department of Health.

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In a sign of pressure on the system, nurses in Limerick’s main hospital complained yesterday that overcrowding there is worsening despite the provision of more than 100 additional beds.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said called on Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to intervene directly to “look under the bonnet” and see why additional beds at University Hospital Limerick had not made a substantial impact.

More trolleys had been placed on wards and corridors in University Hospital Limerick in recent days as overcrowding continued, the union said.

Uneven pressure

Chief medical officer Tony Holohan said the uneven spread of coronavirus infections throughout the State meant some hospitals might be under more pressure than suggested by overall admissions data.

“It can happen that individual hospitals can be under quite a degree of pressure when the overall situation in the country might not suggest that’s the case. So we do know that maybe some hospitals in the west have already had a challenge with much more infections based on the most recent wave than other hospitals.”

He acknowledged reported pressure on hospitals in Limerick and in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, and cited pressure also on hospitals in Co Mayo.

“We have seen quite a wide variation in case numbers in individual hospitals,” Dr Holohan said. “We have 150 give or take hospitalisations. That’s not spread evenly spread across the 30 or 40 hospitals that might be admitting patients with this infection.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said hospitals would be under pressure if there were no coronavirus admissions.

“The point that obviously the absolute numbers are much less than previous waves is very welcome,” he said.

“The reality is that if we had no cases of Covid in hospital tomorrow morning our hospitals would be under extreme pressure. Unfortunately that’s what we’re dealing with, both pre-Covid and now but particularly as a result of Covid in the last number of months

“Our healthcare workers are exhausted frankly. They’re facing into enormous backlogs in elective care, non-Covid care, non-Covid health plans, social care: both in acute settings and in community,” he confirmed.

“So while the absolute numbers are less than previously we’re very conscious that any increase in those number ... has potential to be very significant to the health service that we’re trying to get back up to full function.”